And how to survive working for one
by Dr. Paul White, PhD
March 1, 2018

Susan, a competent young supervisor, looked worn and defeated. In talking about her workplace, she told us that bickering, criticism and lack of support had spread through the leaders of her home health care organization—a workplace she used to love. Now, she said, “The tension here is so thick I hate going to work.”

In our work helping teams learn how to communicate authentic appreciation to one another, we were repeatedly told stories about how negative a workplace was, or what “jerks” some of the leaders were. We decided to explore the issue more deeply, and surveyed thousands of employees and interviewed dozens of selected employees and managers.

We found common patterns of behavior among what we call toxic leaders. Here are the top 10 traits:

1 They look good (at least initially).

They’re often articulate, skilled socially and persuasive. They can be smart and highly skilled in the technical area of a business. Many demonstrate they can motivate others to generate positive results. Sometimes they start out as largely healthy individuals but, over time, pressures and compromises degrade their integrity.

2 They’re extreme about goals.

Most toxic leaders are intensely committed to achieving goals. Hyper-focused on accomplishment, they use all of their resources to pursue their goal, and they are adept at getting others to join them. It is important to note, however, that their goals often are driven by self-interest and
self-promotion.

3 They’re manipulative.

Toxic leaders are masters of manipulation—both of information and people. They make things look good when they’re not. They choose what they will share, manipulating the presentation of information. Through guilt, shame and threat of embarrassment, toxic leaders manipulate those who work for them.

4 They’re narcissistic.

Toxic leaders truly believe they’re superior—that they’re brighter and more talented than anyone else. They are the reason for everything good that has happened, and therefore, they should get the credit. They naturally conclude their desires, image and success should come first. It is all about them. Although they won’t say so publicly, they believe rules don’t apply to them.

5 They steal the credit for others’ successes.

Most toxic leaders have no qualms about taking full responsibility for success. If the positive result occurs near their presence, they’ll proclaim the results are due to their superior vision, insight and efforts. When a team commits extraordinary time and effort to make an event successful, their work is not mentioned—the leader gets all of the glory.

6 They’re condescending.

Toxic leaders almost always relate to others in a condescending manner—except when they praise others to manipulate them. Smooth and socially suave in public, they reserve their condescension for the workplace. Since they believe no one else is as talented or bright as they, they think their ideas should always be received with respect and deference. Be forewarned: Do not challenge them in front of others. When they don’t feel appropriately respected, they tear down those they see as a threat to their authority.

7 They’re inauthentic.

At first, toxic leaders may act as if they care deeply about the organization’s cause and its people. In fact, one type of toxic leader is the warm, engaging leader who comes across as greatly caring for others. But it’s a superficial act. Over time, their true persona becomes apparent to those around them. The leader’s lack of authenticity can become evident in other areas as well—their prior experience and education may turn out to be a sham, and often the
results they bragged about achieving in other organizations are exposed as grossly exaggerated.

8 They use others.

For the sake of the larger cause, toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal. Toxic leaders rarely, if ever, take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. They successfully attribute failure to others. They’re talented at rewriting history and coating themselves in Teflon, allowing nothing bad to stick. They’ll ask team members, “How could you let this happen? I’m terribly disappointed in you.” People can walk out of a meeting asking, “What just happened?”

9 They won’t address real risks.

Toxic leaders tend to ignore issues they don’t care about or those that don’t help them look good. Issues crucial to the health of the organization, such as conflicts among staff, go unaddressed. Often they focus on immediate gains, neglecting long-term implications. Many toxic leaders pay extreme attention to presenting an image of helping the organization succeed financially but ignore the realities of the true financial situation.

10 They leave before things fall apart.

One thing most toxic leaders know how to do well is when to “get out of town” before everything falls apart and, like the Wizard of Oz, they’re discovered behind the curtain. Some “make out like a bandit” financially or leap to a larger organization into a higher position of leadership and influence—while their former companies clean up the ruin they left.

To summarize, toxic leaders may be very competent (in a technical sense), but their motives are impure. They are essentially totally focused on their interests and achievement, and will use others to get what they want. They manipulate (often by shame or anger); they take credit for others’ work; and they rarely, if ever, accept any responsibility when something goes wrong.

It is important to note that a toxic leader doesn't have to be at the top tier of the organization—they can occur at a department level, or as a front-line supervisor. Regardless of their position, they make life hell for those who work under them.

What to Do?

First, and foremost, if you don’t care for yourself, no one else will (the organization won’t). When individuals work in a toxic environment, they put themselves at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, other medical problems), emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger), and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships). So keep important health-maintaining activities forefront in your life—exercise, sleep, friendships and hobbies that renew you.

Secondly, surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others who can help us cope with the stress from work, and who can honestly tell us when we need to consider looking for another job.
Finally, determine how much longer you want to work in this setting and begin to explore other options. For guidelines, find resources on appreciationatwork.comentitled, “How to Know When It is Time to Quit Your Job” and “How to Avoid Being Hired by a Toxic Workplace.” You don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.