Toxic Leaders: To Fire or Not To Fire?
Updated: May 29, 2020
That is the question. Toxic leaders come in several different forms. From the leaders who secretly sabotage their employee's work or character to the leaders that openly throw rage fits all over the organization. Because I have seen both, the one that most will find hard to understand is the Sabotage(r). I will give a brief description of that one as we move into the article. For now, let's focus on the effects of and how a toxic leader should be handled by their bosses and the employees that work for them.
The dread an employee feels when they start their day, before arriving at work, can be contributed to working for a toxic leader. Picturing the agonizing moments in the past, as recent as the last Friday or just yesterday, of your boss yelling and cursing or blaming you for mishaps that were their fault is a reactive mix of emotions that some employees are unable to cope with. Although the study of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) is still being researched, the experience that I just described can be the basis for such diagnosis. Toxic leaders are often times unaware of the lasting effects that their behavior has on their employees. Some employees live in fear of their bosses, while others replicate the behavior towards those who they view are just as deserving of the behavior as they are. So, as a leader within your organization, what type of leaders are you creating?
Extreme movie of choice, but have you ever seen the movie 'Swimming with the Sharks'? Well, you should watch it or if you have, you can understand the concept that I am describing. The behavior of toxic leaders, if not addressed, can result in emotional and mental abuse, manipulative quid pro quo, or assault on their employee. We have now moved into the realm of abuse of power or authority. The movie I mentioned earlier is a bit extreme one, but it is also a great depiction of many employee relationships with toxic leaders. People hurting people that they view are lesser or weaker than they are based on their power and control over them. They know that their is a level of dependency and they methodically use this fact to behave badly towards their employee(s). Toxic leaders feel they are doing what is best for the employee(s) in order to enhance or maintain productivity, when in fact, they are negatively affecting the individual(s) and the overall environment of the organization. If you want to learn more on actions of a toxic leader, google the article "48 Ways Managers Abuse Their Power and Destroy Employee Engagement".
Back in the late 80's, a new term was born in the U.S... Postal. After a series of shootings within the United States Postal Services, some were convinced that a few of the incidents were a direct result of toxic leaders. Employees react. Some employees cope with toxic leaders better than others, while others may feel driven to violence or harm to themselves in order to be heard. Are you listening to your employee(s) when they come to you with a complaint about their leader? This is the person you hired or you manage. The first thing is to understand that no one is without flaw and everyone must be treated equally and held accountable. If you are quick to scold an employee, then the same actions should be for a leader, as they supervise the individuals that are responsible for the success of your organization. Your reaction to leaders that exhibit toxic behavior is what will define the cohesiveness and level of trust within your organization. You are also responsible for the well-being and safety of your employees, and preventing the development or eliminate the cause of a toxic workplace lies parallel to those responsibilities. Think of how an employee feels when their complaint of their leader has been ignored. Do they take matters in their own hands by quitting or lashing out? No good leader wants to lose a good employee over a toxic leader. My saying is 'The day you become a boss is the day you have to fire one'. Toxic leaders, not only get fired, but they can cause their boss to be fired, too.
The best way to assist in the prevention of a toxic workplace environment is to ensure that leaders are trained on policies and workplace etiquette and ethics. There is nothing wrong with emphasizing to your leaders about your standards for the treatment of employees and the effects of toxic leadership. When your leaders understand your passion in this area, they adopt that same passion and respect. If you are concerned about how they treat the employees, then they will come to realize that the same treatment is what you will extend to them. Be open and stern in explaining the consequences and don't be afraid to give real-life examples that may have occurred in the past. This approach will set in stone the importance of employee care. As for your employees, ensure there is a clear understanding of the organization's complaint process and conduct periodic employee workplace surveys. It is detrimental to the tone of of the work relations between you and your employees that their complaints and the results of the surveys are confidential and taken seriously. Include them in the process from start to finish. Use your HR department to develop a strategy to deal with the negative results of the survey, whether it be training or team building. For the complaints, if necessary and not available in your organization, include a conflict resolution consultant or mediator in some cases. For more severe complaints, an internal investigation or the contact of outside law enforcement may be the most adequate approach. Don't be the one who has to answer to a violent or fatal incident that you could have prevented. Be the one who understands that there are situations when the best recourse is to fire a leader.
Hate to end this piece, because there is so much more depth on the topic of toxic leaders that was not addressed. I will continue with another article in the future that focuses on the toxic leader, their self-awareness, and how they can stop or prevent the behavior.
Thought I forgot? Sabotage(r). If you have never been in a situation that was created by a leader secretly sabotaging you, then you probably weren't aware of it (hence the word, secretly). I remember being abruptly removed from a high profile position in my organization and placed in a lower position. For me, I wondered, but I did not question. I am a team player. I just made the most of the new lower level position that they said needed to filled immediately to benefit the organization. To make a long story short, after my boss left the organization (he was fired for being a toxic leader), I asked the lead manager of the section I was removed from, did he know the reason for the removal. He told me that Mr. Toxic said I was not a good fit, because I had already worked the position before and he preferred to find someone else who hadn't and needed the experience. Sounds corny, right? I performed excellently in my previous position, was vetted, and selected for that position prior to arriving to the organization. In the end, the lead manager apologized and regretted that I had never come to him with the concern. He was led to believe by Mr. Toxic that I was fine with the downgrade in position. He stated that he would have fought for me, if he knew I was not okay with the decision. Mr. Toxic deliberately sabotaged my position, downgraded me, and gave my position to one of his groupies (learned after the fact). He did not care and he knew that it would later affect my promotion. And it did. The advice I can give in this situation or if you suspect you're being sabotaged is to address your concerns with HR or EEO, because not everyone you believed to be involved are cognizant of what may have really occurred. Your reaction to speak out may uncover the secret sabotage(r) and benefit the entire organization and the improvement of the workplace environment.
Hasl-Kelchner, H. (2015, July 22). 48 Ways Managers Abuse Their Power and Destroy Employee Engagement. Retrieved from
Disclaimer: This article is not based on research results, but is a personal construct theory from personal observation and personal experience of current events. All articles of APM are to provoke thought and influence future research.
Author: University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Professor Assistant, undergraduate at Colorado Technical University, Industrial and Organizational Psychology Major, February 2020 expected graduate date
Dated January 12, 2020. firstname.lastname@example.org