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4 ways to identify toxic leaders

January 10, 2022

“Workers Quit Jobs At a Record Level”

That was the headline last Wednesday, January 3, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal.

Did you know that when surveyed, employees most often cite toxic leadership as the #1 reason for leaving a job?

If you’re in HR and reading this, you know all too well the cost of replacing employees who leave. Because yes, there are actual costs to recruit and onboard new employees. But don’t forget the hidden costs behind the dollar signs dancing in front of your eyes—the costs of training new employees, lost business, and the impact on the morale of employees who remain. When you add all of that up, the cost of employee turnover for the organization is staggering.


If we can eliminate the toxic behaviors in leaders, we’ll take a giant step toward improving employee retention. So, how do we do that? How can we identify those toxic leaders? Because it’s not always as easy as seeing a boss yelling at their employee.

Here are four characteristics to look for:

  1. Leaders who have difficulty trusting their employees. This behavior is often rooted in a lack of self-confidence on their part and is especially true of new leaders. This person may feel that they have all of the answers to lead when in reality, they’re not equipped with the tools to effectively lead.

  2. Leaders with outsized egos. This is the exact opposite of leaders who lack self-confidence. When you’re around this leader, you’ll get the feeling that it’s all about them. And they’ll usually take credit for the accomplishments of their team, regardless of the amount of input they actually had. Their favorite saying just might be, “Look at me!”

  3. Leaders who are the gruff boss of office legend. If they’re perpetually grouchy, don’t like being bothered by anything, or are unapproachable—they’re toxic. Leaders like this stymie change and innovation. They’re satisfied with the status quo and see no reason to entertain new ideas.

  4. Leaders who are incompetent. For whatever reason, this person landed in leadership but are a fish out of water. It’s possible they also may have a bit of number two in them and think very highly of themselves. They’re often unaware that they aren’t a good fit for the role—which will lead them to make poor, and even puzzling, decisions.

There are many more traits, but this list is a good glimpse into the types of behaviors that define toxic leadership.

Now we know what to look for, but what can we do to actually change it (if that’s even possible)? Our charge is twofold:

First, identify the leaders who exhibit these behaviors and make them aware of it. If they acknowledge the need to change, we can help them eliminate the toxic actions in their leadership style. If they aren’t willing to change, they should be removed from leadership.

Second, we can better prepare new and aspiring leaders, so they don’t fall into these toxic behaviors. Teaching sound leadership principles, even before people formally become leaders, will help change the tide.

People are more willing than ever to pack up and change jobs. Organizations full of toxic leaders only amplify and speed up this exodus. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rid the world of toxic leaders!

. . .

Jeff Custer is a long-time leader at both private and Fortune 500 companies where he has developed and led both high performance individuals and teams. He is passionate about developing leaders and building high impact teams. Jeff resides in the United States.

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