Leaders play a vital role in defining and articulating the values, practices and beliefs that underpin the corporate cultures they seek to create.
And leaders can fail to sustain these cultures for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they have a case of uncontrolled narcissism – they put their personal needs for attention, admiration and acceptance above their people and the company’s mission.
Or maybe their leadership style is to instill fear – they lead with interactions that make people feel unsafe and anxious at work. These leaders tend to feel big by making others feel small.
“Fear of competitors, market changes and aging can be motivating,” says Chris Evans, CEO of Barefoot, a brand experience agency whose mission is to end meaningless moments between consumers and brands, “but if you start profiling a common enemy “It has to be outside the organization and something that ultimately motivates in achieving the mission.”
Other characteristics that indicate a toxic leader may include arrogance, not listening and not receiving feedback, or decision-making motivated by self-interest.
Here are four ways leaders can — intentionally or unintentionally — poison a company’s culture.
1. They ignore the problem.
Toxic leaders will avoid addressing employees who go against company culture. You will see them slip certain behaviors over and over again. Or maybe they are just naive and ignorant. Either way, keeping an eye out for this behavior will help you identify a misaligned leader.
If you see this happening pull them aside and tell them what you noticed. If they are not aware of it, gently bring their behavior to their attention. If they know, ask why they let things slide and brainstorm ways they can engage employees and resolve issues before they get worse. Often leaders feel ill-equipped to handle a problem and need guidance on conflict resolution.
2. They create a culture of cronyism.
If you notice an air of exclusivity, you may have a toxic leader. Sometimes leaders feel more comfortable with certain employees than others and consciously (or unconsciously) contribute to cliques and exclusivity. Some leaders even use company values to create “in groups” and “out of groups”, which is never okay.
“Even with strong values, beliefs and practices, there should be room for different backgrounds, experiences and points of view,” says Evans.
When leaders value hierarchy and promote their friends or former colleagues over others who are equally qualified, a cycle of “in group/out group” behavior and exclusivity emerges. As a result, the “in-group” is often given preferential treatment and different norms adhered to. This is never healthy, even for people in the “in-group.”
Positive work cultures seek out different voices and perspectives, promoting openness and equality. If you notice the opposite happening in your workplace, point out this behavior to your leader and remind him why inclusion is important not only for the people, but for the overall health of the workplace. Give them specific action steps to move forward, such as encouraging 1-on-1s with newer employees or engaging in conversation with less talkative employees at work events.
3. They enable workplace bullying.
When leaders enable exclusive behavior, bullying can happen. Workplace bullying is the mistreatment of one or more employees by another employee.
Examples include not inviting certain people to happy hour at work, deliberately re-assigning mundane tasks to someone, dishonestly altering deadlines, or denying people access to certain programs for no reason.
If you see this happening or if you hear complaints, always contact the person responsible immediately. Consider group training on what is and isn’t okay in the workplace and how to handle bullying. This gives your employees more freedom to bring this behavior to your attention, so that you can stop it early.
4. They are micromanaging.
How do you recognize a micromanager? Their employees suffer from burnout and distress.
Micromanagers are leaders who try to control every aspect, no matter how small, of the company, project, activity or whatever. Employee burnout and tense emotions are likely to increase when bullying, micromanaging and exclusivity take place. With toxic leaders, they can unknowingly create unmanageable and unsustainable workloads for the employees. This unhealthy workload can also contribute to absenteeism and burnout.
If you suspect a leader is micromanaging, there may be a trust or control issue at play. Ask them why they find it difficult to trust their employees and start at the root.
The truth is that all organizations will at some point encounter leaders exhibiting toxic behavior – that’s almost a given. The key is to be accountable now so that you can eventually help those leaders grow, develop and change for the better.