toxic leaders

How to Identify Toxic Leaders and Improve Company Culture

Unfortunately, most professionals have had a bad boss or two. But did you know there’s more than one kind?  Recently, Binghamton University professor Seth M. Spain published findings along these lines in “Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being.” In the chapter in question, Professor Spain asserts toxic leaders come in two main varieties. Knowing how to tell the difference between the two is key for protecting your company’s culture and the sanity of the folks who work there.

Let’s take a look at the fascinating research behind this unexpected duality and explore what this means for culture in the workplace.

The “Dysfunctional” Boss

Any fan of NBC’s “The Office”— and the travails of Michael Gary “That’s What She Said” Scott — knows all about the dysfunctional boss. In fact, more than a few of you might know a flesh-and-blood version.

The dysfunctional boss, according to Professor Spain, harbors no ill-will toward anybody in particular—they merely lack leadership and organizational skills. And make no mistake, leadership is most definitely a skill to be learned over time — not a standalone job description.

Says Professor Spain, “They don’t want to hurt you … through lack of skill … they’re just not very good at their job.” Harsh, perhaps, but fair.

The “Dark” Boss

Meanwhile, the “dark” boss is a different beast entirely. Whereas the dysfunctional boss causes frustration and even harm without strictly meaning to, the dark boss practices destructive behaviors with the express purpose of elevating themselves at everybody else’s expense.

According to Professor Spain, this type of leader generally embodies a triumvirate of unfortunate qualities— namely psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.

What to Do About It

Why is it important to understand this distinction? First and foremost, it’s useful because “work stress” is not a single phenomenon but rather a collection of symptoms — and parsing and understanding those symptoms thoroughly can help us discover what holds us back in the workplace. And with that understanding comes the ability to tune out negative influences, and to focus on improving our behavior and our commitment to career greatness.

Of course, identifying less-savory qualities in workplace leaders has always been a challenge for employers. So what can we do differently to — for lack of a better phrase — “weed out” these types of leaders? As it turns out, sometimes you need to start on the ground floor.

Rethink the Interview Process

“Hard skills” will always be important. If you’re looking for a new IT supervisor, you want somebody who knows the difference between a VPN and the VFD.

Unfortunately, people don’t always place an equal emphasis on behavior. If you’re hiring based on skill alone, however, you can’t be surprised if a poor leader slips through the cracks. Toxic leaders are often aware of their bad behavior and have learned to hide those qualities in the “traditional” interview setting. Make sure you’re asking the right questions.

Get a Second Opinion

If you worry about toxic leaders in your midst, don’t let the situation escalate into a full-blown confrontation. An easy mistake to make is approaching the employee by yourself. They’ll read this as a personal attack and go on the offensive.

Instead, if there’s a hard conversation to be had, bring a couple hand-picked companions know your story and express it in a respectful manner. When the person begins to recognize the problem is systemic instead of isolated, they might reevaluate their leadership style. And if not? Sometimes you just have to…

Know When to Let Them Go

Prevention should be the order of the day. Sometimes, however, you don’t know how toxic one of your leaders is until you’ve worked with them for a time. If you make such a discovery in your own organization, sometimes there’s just one cure.

Culture clash is very real, and it’s a more than suitable reason for severing ties with a toxic employee. Tenure is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Even an epic skill set shouldn’t be used as a shield against disciplinary action. This is particularly true if the behaviors in question have occurred for a while. Sometimes it’s best just to go your separate ways.

A Higher Standard

One key revelation the entire developed world seems to have arrived at is that a person’s desire to lead should not be their only credential. It’s right to hold would-be bosses, mayors and presidents to a higher standard — a standard befitting their desired station.

Maybe you’re an employee rather than an employer. You’ve got something at stake, too. By practicing a few of the actions described above, you don’t have to suffer under toxic leaders. In learning to identify and rationally address these qualities in others, you’ll unconsciously prepare yourself for your own future leadership role.



William Craig

William Craig is the founder and president of WebpageFX, a full-service internet marketing company listed as one of Inc. magazine’s 5000 fastest-growing companies. The company is ranked the #1 SEO agency by Heardable, and is listed as the best place to work in PA (small/medium companies) by the Central Penn Business Journal and Pennsylvania Department of Community and Business Development. Drawing from Craig’s 17 years of experience as a pioneer in the internet marketing industry, WebpageFX helps businesses raise their profile and increase their revenue, through diverse online strategies including social media management, search engine optimization and digital public relations.

  • Brooke Harper

    Especially in the sales industry, the world can be very toxic and very demanding. What’s worse is that if the boss is just as such, employees can lose their motivation and underperform because of this issue.

    Establish the right culture for your organization and you are building your success. The right culture is built from top to bottom. The way at which the leaders are perceived by the employees creates a great impact to the culture. For instance, if they see c-suite and sales leaders
    coming in early and putting in extra work, that shows them that everyone is in the building to deliver.

    Here’s an interesting article written by our CEO that speaks further of some leadership techniques that can inspire a team:

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