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What Do You Do With a Toxic Leader?

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Junior and Dr. Tim Clark discuss a daunting but important question: What do you do with a toxic leader? Too often, organizations will either do nothing or wait too long to react to evidence of harmful leadership. But toxic cultures can't and won't heal themselves. And the remedy largely depends on the kind of leader you're dealing with. Listen in as Tim and Junior explore the characteristics of toxic leaders, the consequences of toxic behavior, and the role of culture in creating, maintaining or preventing toxicity. You'll learn how to distinguish between an actively toxic and passively complicit leader, and discover how to hold your leaders culturally accountable for their behavior.

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Episode Show Notes

In this week's episode of Culture by Design, Junior and Dr. Tim Clark discuss a daunting but important question: What do you do with a toxic leader? Too often, organizations will either do nothing or wait too long to react to evidence of harmful leadership. But toxic cultures can't and won't heal themselves. And the remedy largely depends on the kind of leader you're dealing with. Listen in as Tim and Junior explore the characteristics of toxic leaders, the consequences of toxic behavior, and the role of culture in creating, maintaining or preventing toxicity. You'll learn how to distinguish between an actively toxic and passively complicit leader, and discover how to hold your leaders culturally accountable for their behavior.


  • Toxic leaders exist and can have a significant impact on organizations.
  • Toxic leadership is often a result of insecurity and unmet human needs.
  • Actively toxic leaders should be removed from the organization, while passively complicit leaders can be coached and held accountable.
  • Tolerance for toxic behavior leads to the normalization of toxicity and can have long-term consequences for the organization.
  • It is important to prioritize long-term thinking and hold leaders accountable for their behavior.


00:00 Introduction

04:11 Pathological Behavior and Consequences of Toxicity

10:26 Culture and Toxicity

17:02 Toxic Leadership and Unmet Human Needs

22:18 Identifying Actively Toxic and Passively Complicit Leaders

26:21 Passively Complicit Leaders

35:15 Actively Toxic Leaders

43:11 Long-Term Thinking and Tolerance for Toxicity

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Jillian: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Jillian, one of the producers of the podcast. In this week's episode, Junior and Dr. Tim Clark, discuss a daunting but important question, what do you do with a toxic leader? Too often, organizations will either do nothing or wait too long to react to evidence of harmful leadership, but toxic cultures can't and won't heal themselves, and the remedy largely depends on the kind of leader you're dealing with, listen in as Tim and Junior, explore the characteristics of toxic leaders, the consequences of toxic behavior, and the role of culture in creating, maintaining or preventing toxicity, you'll learn how to distinguish between an actively toxic and passively complicit leader, and discover how to hold your leaders culturally accountable for their behavior. As always, you can find links to resources mentioned in this episode, in our show notes at Thanks again for listening and enjoy today's episode on what to do with a toxic leader.

0:01:06.5 Junior: I'm Junior back with my co-host Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be discussing what to do with a toxic leader. Tim how are you doing?

0:01:15.2 Tim Clark: Doing well. You sure you wanna take this on, Junior?

0:01:18.6 Junior: I don't know. Should we just stop? We can stop recording. I'll hit the button right now.

0:01:22.5 Tim Clark: This is not a modest topic.

0:01:24.9 Junior: No.

0:01:25.8 Tim Clark: But I guess we're gonna go for it.

0:01:27.1 Junior: We are. Presumably, everyone listening to this podcast has experienced a toxic leader, maybe they were your boss, maybe they were your peer, maybe they lived across the organization, but if they were distant from you, maybe they had a ripple effect so big, so bad that it affected you miles away in any case, these types of leaders, these toxic leaders exist, if you haven't had the chance to meet one you will, or maybe, I don't think it is, but maybe it's one of those things where if you haven't seen any toxic leader, you are the toxic leader. I hope not. I guess there's probably a good chance that...

0:02:01.8 Tim Clark: I hope not.

0:02:03.0 Junior: If you're listening to this podcast called Culture by Design, you're not a toxic leader. There's a good chance.

0:02:06.8 Tim Clark: Yeah.

0:02:08.3 Junior: Tim, have you ever met one? A toxic leader?

0:02:11.7 Tim Clark: Let me think, let me think, let me think. Oh, as a matter of fact, I think I have, come to think of it.

0:02:19.3 Junior: More than one?

0:02:20.6 Tim Clark: Yes, I have, I've met more than one. In fact, I have worked for more than one Junior, more than one. We could talk about a lot of different toxic leaders, one comes to mind, if I go back to college football days, and that may come as no surprise to some people, but I had a coach that was in this category, very demeaning and belittling to the players, and very destructive, and I was on the receiving end of that. And so I got to experience that first hand. And so it's not theory to me, it's something that I experienced, it was real, we can see the cascading consequences that come from that, we can see the destruction, we can see the rippling damage that occurs, so. Yeah, I've been there.

0:03:09.2 Junior: What was that like for you? 'cause this was probably one of the earlier times, that you experienced that sort of toxicity. What was it like for you as a player?

0:03:20.1 Tim Clark: Yeah, here's a hypothesis for you Junior, The earlier you experience a toxic boss, the younger you are, the more profound and negative adverse impact it can have on your life, because you're young, it's a formative experience. Right. And so it can leave some pretty deep scars and period effects from that experience.

0:03:46.0 Junior: And I suppose the titles interchangeable, toxic, whatever, and regardless of the title that follows, there are ripple effects, and so I'm sure many of us, if not all of us have dealt with that. And maybe we're still dealing with that. And the interesting thing that we're gonna dive into today is that toxic leadership is not hard to find, but it's rarely dealt with appropriately, it's something that most organizations get wrong, and so our hope today is to equip you with some ideas, some tools by which you can identify a toxic leader. And then what do you do? We're going to talk about that what do you do very explicitly. So let's get into it. I wanted to start off the conversation today by talking a little bit about influence in a general sense as leaders as people, we influence, and that influence can be healthy, and we can use tools of persuasion, we can have good modeling behavior, we can be great coaches that influence, to your earlier point, can also be pathological. So Tim, help us understand what's pathological behavior as it relates to leaders, how might we approach this?

0:04:58.5 Tim Clark: Well, we think about influence Junior on a spectrum, we call it the spectrum of influence, at one end of that spectrum is manipulation, at the other end of that spectrum is coercion. Now, what are these? These are modes of influence, manipulation uses deceit to try to get what you want, coercion uses just force. We're gonna press people into service, so we have manipulation at one end we have coercion at the other, and both are pathological expressions of influence and both lead to fear as a consequence. So that's what I would say to just overview, the way that people misuse influence.

0:05:51.3 Junior: And what may have follow is sort of obvious, but it's worth calling out that toxicity refers to both the behavior of the person, the interaction, and then what follows, because what happens in the wake of that toxic behavior is important, and often importantly, negative. It's destructive. It hurts people. There are consequences, it hurts creativity, it hurts morale, and there are a whole host of other things that it does, which we'll get into, but when you use force, when you use deceit, when you manipulate others, when you instill fear, that's going to create an environment that people don't wanna be in, it's going to create an environment that's going to be very hurtful long-term, and it's not just a feel bad sort of thing, it has very much to do with performance.

0:06:39.4 Tim Clark: Yeah, well, Junior, I would even add this to it, so if you are influencing others through coercion or manipulation. You're gas-lighting people. Now, what does that mean? It means that you are manipulating someone in a way that they question their own perception of reality. Are you not doing that? Yes, you are. If you're using manipulation, you're trying to deceive them, if you're using coercion, you're trying to force them, that's a terrible moral infraction, is what that is. And we'll talk more about that and the consequences, but we need to see this for what it is, and we need to be able to describe it accurately as we go along in this discussion.

0:07:33.7 Junior: So here's a question for you, is being a toxic boss based on a lack of ability? Is it just a skill thing?

0:07:42.4 Tim Clark: Is it a skill thing, is it an ability thing? I don't think so. In fact, as I think about all of the toxic bosses or leaders that I've known or worked with, I can't think of a single instance where I would say that root cause was lack of ability or lack of skill. Honestly, I don't think so.

0:08:05.4 Junior: So no amount of skill...

0:08:06.7 Tim Clark: So what do you think it is Junior?

0:08:07.9 Junior: Well, it's gotta be intent, it's gotta be intent. If it's not skill, it has to be intent. So what's a toxic leader? A toxic leader is anyone who has a pattern of using pathological means of influence and that pathology has motive, and it's negative.

0:08:29.6 Tim Clark: Yeah. It has motive.

0:08:31.4 Junior: And so, no, it's not a matter of being unskilled, you may have not finely tuned your tools of influence, and you may not be the most healthily influential person who's walked the earth, but if you have good intent, you can use pretty blunt instruments and still be successful and influence people in the right direction, 'cause you say you've never seen that be a skill issue. I've never seen positive intent be a skill issue, to look at it from the other angle.

0:09:05.1 Tim Clark: The other side. Yeah.

0:09:05.3 Junior: I've never seen someone who has pure intent and people's best interest at heart really crash and burn at a skill level, obviously, you need a threshold level of competence, but it's often not only at the 99th percentile will you really make it. You can go pretty far on a little if you've got good intent.

0:09:29.3 Tim Clark: So then if that's true, Junior then a toxic boss is someone who deliberately purposefully pre-meditatively hurts others. And the distinction matters because how do we remedy this situation, you can't skill build yourself out of that problem, that's the wrong prescription for the diagnosis here, if it's not a matter of skill. We gotta do something else. Yeah.

0:09:57.8 Junior: Let's talk about culture. So you mentioned leaders influence can be healthy or pathological, culture has a spectrum of health as well, it can also be healthy and pathological, and one is a function of the other. Now, what comes first? Culture or people? People come first, people build the culture. We did a global employee survey at Leader Factor, we asked employees across industries this question, have you ever worked in a toxic culture? How many said that they had? 86%, that's pretty high.

0:10:34.0 Tim Clark: Overwhelming.

0:10:36.2 Junior: We know that this is a problem a lot of people face. And the culture we have will be a product of the people in the culture, straight forward, so if we use pathological forms of influence, we will have a pathological culture, and that culture is gonna be characterized by fear, here's the next step of logic, if toxic leaders are bad for culture and culture dictates the long-term performance of an organization, it means that toxic leaders are bad for organizations, because of that culture as the intermediate variable. I have yet to see an example that refutes this point. Now, you can accomplish a bit in the short term, if you push and use deceptive tactics and maybe for a good while, but you can't have healthy roots, you can't have anything that's meaningfully sustainable, it won't endure.

0:11:29.5 Junior: It won't endure the hardship of the markets, it won't endure the volatility, and so your lifespan will be shortened by having that cultural implication, so that's where I think that this becomes important. The rubber meets the road. Why is this important? Well, if you wanna build a meaningfully differentiated organization that creates value in the marketplace, you wanna compete, even if you're very operationally-minded and you're just looking at the bottom line in isolation, there's no argument to be made that in the long term, culture is not the best play.

0:12:04.8 Tim Clark: No, I agree. Let me just build on your point, you said it won't last, you said if you use manipulation and coercion, you may get some high performance in the short term, but not in the long-term, why? Well, may I have, I'll stop for thought here, because where you're going is, you're fostering conformity, you are nurturing compliance in the organization rather than commitment, and so the nature of the high performance is not durable because it's being driven by conformity and compliance, rather than commitment. Commitment is a different kind of fuel. It is a durable long-term category of fuel for organizational performance, conformity and compliance are not.

0:13:00.8 Junior: As you talked about that, something that comes to mind for me is that you don't get additional problem solving with compliance, so if I'm being compliant, I'm going to give you my hands to get the work done, but you're not gonna get any discretionary effort, you're not gonna get any real problem solving or creativity, you can't press creativity out of people. And so if you have a toxic leader, let's say just for easy illustration, you have someone who influences the to top of 100 people, you have one brain doing the work, and you have 200 hands.

0:13:40.5 Junior: If you want 100 brains and 200 hands, manipulation and fear and coercion cannot be tools that you pull out of your tool box, those have to stay away, and so that means that your ability to problem solve, and your ability to innovate lies exclusively with one person. Now, the probability that that one person gets it right every time is as close to zero as you can get. The probability only goes up as you have more people's heads on the problem, now it's not perfectly linear, but you can't say that 100 reasonably intelligent people are going to be worse at problem-solving than one, so just in very basic terms, you see that it's nonsensical, so why then do people do it?

0:14:34.8 Tim Clark: Well, Junior, I just wanna add one point before we move on, because I loved what you said, you got one brain and 200 hands, so if we're leading through pervasive fear and we're inducing conformity and compliance rather than commitment, think about what that's doing to the cognitive capacity, of those 100 people, they're freezing their discretionary efforts, you're shutting them down cognitively, because the thinking brain and the feeling brain are connected, so those 100 people, they should be one great brain, and there should be this magnificent neuroplasticity that characterizes these 100 people working together, collaborating, executing, innovating. But you put a stop to that. And so they're not functioning with... Has one great brain, the neuroplasticity has been stopped, so to speak, and the synapses are not firing between people and among people. That's exactly what happens. So think about the capacity of that organization to perform long-term, short-term, they can really do a lot out of fear, people will really work hard, but the ingenuity is gone, the resourcefulness is gone, and so in the long term, you're going to suffer, but you may not see it right away.

0:16:04.8 Junior: We've talked before about the fact that insecurity pervades the human race, and that this is something that we all deal with. What do you think that has to do with toxic leadership? What do you think belies the toxicity? What's the motive? Why would you do this? Why is it so pervasive? What do you get out of it? If you're the toxic leader?

0:16:28.9 Tim Clark: Well, Junior, I think it's at the root. I think insecurity is at the root of toxic leadership every time, otherwise, why would people be motivated to elevate themselves by subordinating others, why would they be afflicted with the illusion of a grand superiority complex? Where does this come from? This is all distortion, you're living and working in a reality distortion field, and you're not regarding your people, you're not respecting your people based on their inherent dignity and worth, why are you acting that way? Because you're insecure and you're not telling yourself the truth, and so you're self-medicating with some kind of soothing story about who you are and who the people that you lead are, and how you have some kind of prerogative or right to mistreat them. And where does that come from? It comes from justification, it comes from rationalization, but if you go down to the root, it's really unmet human needs, isn't it? It's that insecurity that comes out of those unmet human needs, and then it compounds and it gets worse.

0:18:00.3 Junior: Well, that line of thinking makes me wanna add a caveat to what we said at the outset about intent, I don't think that toxic leadership 100% of the time is an intent problem in that the person deliberately makes the decision, I'm going to use pathological forms of influence, let me tell you why I wanna add this caveat, most humans learn observationally, right? We know that, we know they learn observationally through the modeling behavior of other people, so we have to take into consideration and maybe zoom out a little bit and say what modeling behavior has this person been exposed to? You said at the beginning yourself that the earlier the exposure is to pathological forms of influence, the more detrimental. What if that's all you've ever seen? And I think we need to make space for that in the conversation and acknowledge the fact that that is most of what some people have seen.

0:19:01.3 Tim Clark: It's a good point.

0:19:02.8 Junior: So if that's all they've seen, maybe that's all they know how to work with. And maybe in the past, they've... Let's say that you had no other coaching ever, and that the coaching you received was exclusively fear-based and you saw that they press people into service and they got some results, you might think, Well, I guess that's how you coach.

0:19:30.0 Junior: And so you do the same thing. So I wanna include that in the conversation as just a small caveat and make a small allowance for that certainly toxicity is bad, period, end of story, we don't want any of that, but we could bring some empathy to the table by understanding that some people haven't had... As much opportunity to see what real healthy influence looks like.

0:19:53.9 Tim Clark: That's a good point, Junior and you're right, we have to create space for a certain percentage of toxic leaders that came out of that kind of environment, it reminds me of the principal and the axiom that hurt people hurt people. And this is how we have the perpetuation of abuse, right I mean think about a child that's denied secure attachment as an infant, and then think about the compounding, unintended consequences of those kinds of things, or a young person that is mistreated and abused early in life, and those are the patterns that they learn. This is often perpetuated at no fault of their own, and so, yes, thank you for saying that. And we have to stipulate to that.

0:20:47.2 Junior: So all this to say, toxic leadership is bad for organizations, toxic leadership is not something that's useful or healthy, it's not something we should ever pursue. Here's the irony, toxic leaders are the most destructive thing an organization can have, by definition, because they build the organization, yet most organizations don't deal with the toxic leaders the way they should go.

0:21:12.7 Tim Clark: No.

0:21:14.2 Junior: So that's what we wanna get into. Let's go a little bit deeper into two types of toxicity, so specifying here, adding a little bit of differentiation is gonna help with the remedy, so two types of toxic leaders, we call them actively toxic and passively complicit, actively toxic means that they themselves engage in the toxic behavior, passively complicit means that they allow others to be toxic without consequence. Now, that distinction is very important. The failure pattern of organizations by and large, is that they do nothing or they wait too long to do something when there are signs or there is evidence of toxic leadership. So that's our hypothesis. Right.

0:22:03.5 Tim Clark: That is our hypothesis. And for listeners, think about this, I'll react to this hypothesis, what we see is a chronic and reactive pattern of delay, this is what most organizations do in response to toxic leadership. Do you see something different? Do you see a different pattern? This is the pattern that we see. And so let's think about the compounding, unintended consequences of delaying or doing nothing, and to add a point to that junior, we don't see if there's toxic leadership in an organization, we don't see spontaneous resolution, we don't see toxic leaders, they almost never reform themselves. Toxic cultures don't heal themselves, we don't see that pattern just with the passage of time, yet toxic leaders may leave, and that may provide some resolution that way, but if they stay, we don't see that kind of self-healing or spontaneous resolution.

0:23:08.3 Junior: No, it's like a bunch of dirty dishes in that you wait to clean themselves and be put away, you sit there and stare at those dishes for a long time, there's not going to be spontaneous organization.

0:23:20.6 Tim Clark: Yeah, that's right.

0:23:21.9 Junior: And so that point, I think is really, really important. Toxic cultures don't heal themselves, if you wait around and do nothing, what are they going to do. They are going to stay the same or get worse. And I guess, stay the same isn't really a thing. So what are they gonna do? They're gonna get worse.

0:23:39.8 Tim Clark: Not it's not, they get worse.

0:23:40.2 Junior: So let's move into the solution. Our approach, the remedy should depend on what type of toxic leader we're dealing with, are they actively toxic or passively complicit, how do you identify a toxic leader in the first place, you look for fear, and fear is a proxy for toxic leadership, and there are a lot of other indicators and symptoms, high turnover, low morale, bad engagement numbers, poor performance, unethical behavior, self-promotion, ignored or dismissed problems. A leader who plays favorites, a leader who takes the lion's share of credit, they're disrespectful, so on and so forth, there's a long list of things that we could put on here, but those are the types of symptoms we're looking for often, not hard to find, not hard to find toxic leaders are often not mysteriously toxic, and just one day we find out most of the time, it's painfully obvious.

0:24:37.9 Junior: So let's talk about this, the passively complicit type, and what we do with these folks, so these people represent what you said before as the negative or negligence are a side of leadership, there's tolerance, there's too much tolerance, they tolerate cycles of mistreatment through the enabling behavior of doing what? Being passive, being aloof, being absent, and you've also called these people in the past, absentee landlords, not that all absentee landlords are passively complicit to toxicity, but I love that that description. It should tell you all you need to know about what they do. They're distant, they're uninvolved, and sometimes they let the behavior go on because here's an interesting thing is, I was thinking about yesterday, they think it results in accountability that they don't have to deal with. Bullying is going on to get something done, and they're like, Oh, you're doing my job for me, things are getting done, some are simply preoccupied with other things, especially in a remote setting, they're literally distant.

0:25:41.0 Tim Clark: Yeah, could be you, yeah especially in all the virtual teams and the hybrid configurations that we have today Junior.

0:25:49.3 Junior: Tell me about your experience with this group, the passively complicit type, what characterizes them in your mind? What's your experience been with them?

0:25:56.9 Tim Clark: Well, as you said, they're coming out of different circumstances, different motivations. Let's take an example. So I've seen cases where passively complicit leaders are allowing a dominant personality in the team, on the team, you've got a dominant personality to bully or harass other members of the team. Now, in this case, the leader has never encountered this kind of a situation before and is scared and intimidated because the leader is new, the leader is inexperienced, the leader just doesn't know what to do, and they themselves are scared, so we often find this situation with new managers they've never led a team, they're new in their roles, it's overwhelming to be thrust into this kind of situation where some team members are toxic. Well, welcome to management. What do I do? So for them, I wouldn't give them the harsh sentence of being guilty of gross negligence, it's different based on intent, again, and here, there is an experience factor, Junior, there is a skill factor, they themselves are not actively toxic, we're saying they are passively complicit. So this is where a lack of skill, a lack of experience, a lack of knowledge, a lack of judgment can also come into play, wouldn't you agree?

0:27:30.2 Junior: Absolutely, they're new, they haven't been through the types of situations that you may have been through, if you've been down the road for 10 or 20 years, you get to a point where you can say, Oh, I've seen this before. Okay, I know what this is. But there's a time where you can't say that. So one of the most important things that we can do institutionally is make sure that there's a clear pathway of escalation, especially as it relates to these new managers, and that's why I think that this is relevant, the leaders and everyone needs to have a clear understanding of what to do when they encounter a cultural breach, let's say that you do have a new leader who needs a little bit of support. They've never been through this before. What should they do? It's unwise of the organization to rely on the immaturity of the leader and say, well, they'll figure it out, it's okay, and leave it to the leader to make the best decision. It's too hopeful. Make sure that your people have a way to go up the ladder to give feedback or to get help about those who might not be behaving appropriately, and maybe it's not outright toxicity, maybe it's just, they need a little bit of support. That should go without saying, but often, many organizations have deficient processes as it relates to escalation.

0:28:52.0 Tim Clark: Yeah. And sometimes Junior is part of that pathway of escalation or pathway of resolution for inexperienced managers. They need support, they need encouragement, they need to be emboldened to do their job, and this is especially difficult when an individual contributor is newly promoted to lead a team, and the members of the team yesterday, they were your peers, and today they are your direct reports, and those direct reports, they have to go through a psychological transition as well based on a new reporting relationship, so now it's not a lateral peer-based relationship, it's a vertical hierarchical relationship, sometimes members of the team, they don't like that and they don't want to negotiate the change, and they can't reconcile themselves to it, and so that manager is going to need some help and support in that process.

0:29:52.9 Junior: No. And when I say a pathway of escalation, I don't mean like submit a ticket and leave it be, and then you're absolved from all responsibility. No, this is part of your job, but we need to be able to support people to be able to do the work themselves, make sure that they're equipped with the right tools, and sometimes there are certainly instances where we do need that formal process, especially if it's legal. Okay, let's move to... Well, let's... I think about passively complicit leaders as it relates to coaching. Have you ever coached a passively complicit leader, and what's the tendency? How coachable are they?

0:30:31.7 Tim Clark: A passively complicit leader is almost always highly coachable Junior, because for them, they are not being actively toxic, they are not deliberately disrespecting, demeaning, belittling their people, they're trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. And so most of the time, they're highly coachable, they want help, they're seeking help, now they still may be afraid, maybe a difficult situation, and it will require courage, but generally speaking, they're very coachable, they want the help.

0:31:11.0 Junior: So that's the question to what do we do with a passively complicit as we coach them, and we've had enough experience to see that this is absolutely a pattern. Very rarely will you see a passively complicit leader say, actually, I'm just gonna stay passively complicit and we're just gonna keep doing it the way we're doing it. Very rarely, so we give them support, we coach them, and hopefully that will take us to a place where we no longer tolerate the toxic behavior and we can resolve and we'll move forward.

0:31:47.9 Tim Clark: Well, think about what's happening, Junior, the passively complicit leader wants to do a good job, has a very difficult situation that creates pain and dissonance and discord on the team, they want resolution, and they know that just sitting on it or waiting and being passive, that's not working because they are already passively compliant and that hasn't worked. So they're desperate for answers.

0:32:18.1 Junior: So let's move to this other group, the actively toxic, what should we do with actively toxic leaders? What I'm not going to say is that we should engage in a 27-step coaching process to turn them around, in short, what are we gonna do with these actively toxic leaders? We are going to get them out of the organization immediately. This is not something that we're gonna approach with a lot of softness, we're not going to approach with a lot of tolerance, we are going to remove the actively toxic leader, now you might say that sounds pretty harsh, are we not gonna give them an opportunity, well chances are they have already had an opportunity? But here's the interesting finding, what percentage of actively toxic leaders are coachable, what do you think? What do you think? Think of a number whatever you thought of. It's probably lower, 5%. 5%. So in our experience, that is the ballpark percentage of those who are able to turn it around with coaching, Tim, why so low? It's a small number.

0:33:23.3 Tim Clark: Well, Junior, I think we have to go back and remember what you said about an actively toxic leader, to be a toxic leader means that you are demonstrating a pattern of toxic behavior that means that you are repeating the same behavior over and over and over, that's how you became a toxic leader, it wasn't one episode, it wasn't one incident, it wasn't one experience where you did or said the wrong thing, we all do that. We all make those kinds of mistakes. What we're talking about is a pattern, so if you exhibit a pattern of disrespectful and destructive behavior that constitutes toxic leadership, so what we're saying is you already have a demonstrated track record, a pattern of toxicity, the assumption is that you've already had chances, opportunities or whatever the organization could do to help. You have try now, now sometimes they don't. Often they don't. We talked about that, how the organization is passive and reactive and doesn't take action, but do you see the problem, this is a pattern of behavior now, and so reformation is not a likely outcome at this point because it's a matter of intent, the toxic leader is being toxic on purpose. The toxic leader is knowingly engaging in these behaviors.

0:35:02.5 Junior: It also doesn't mean that they are irreparable and that they will never change, what we're acknowledging is the willingness and the intent, and what we're saying is that the pattern that we've seen is once they are at that pull of the spectrum of active toxicity, the chance of turnaround is very low now, operating the best interest of the business and those around you and knowing the downside risk of toxic behavior would we bet the farm on a 5% chance of a successful outcome? No, no, we absolutely would not do that, yet organizations often do two things to these leaders, they insulate them or they rationalize their behavior or both, and that's the failure pattern of most institutions that are dealing with actively toxic leaders, they'll insulate them or rationalize their behavior. Why? Because often, their performant, again, in the short-term, now the time horizon is always important, and it's something that I cannot harp on enough in these discussions, if you're thinking short-term, hey, no holds barred. Go for it, right?

0:36:13.9 Junior: If that's your only objective is whatever your objective is and we just to the wind with everything else, then okay, we can have an argument about what might make sense, but the moment that you introduce a longer timeline, a lot of that goes out the window. And so I would encourage each of us to think across a longer time horizon than we normally do, if this organization needed to be around in a thousand years, how would we behave. We might behave a little bit differently. So if you have a toxic leader who's highly performant, there's a big incentive to keep them around, we need to remove that actively toxic leader because the tolerance for that type of behavior is incredibly destructive to the organization, if you don't get rid of that person, you're sending a clear message to the organization that the behavior is acceptable.

0:37:12.1 Tim Clark: That's right. And as we say, as you say quite frequently, what you tolerate, you normalize, and everyone sees that, and that will have adverse consequences in the organization, but I do want to mention one caveat or qualification when it comes to what to do with an actively toxic leader, I have seen this one option be successful in certain cases. I would say it's successful less than 50% of the time. I don't know what percentage of the time it's successful, but it does work sometimes, and that is you take an actively toxic leader and you move them into an individual contributor role with the very clear expectations, with clear expectations that they must change their behavior.

0:38:08.1 Tim Clark: I have actually seen that work on a number of occasions, I've seen it with a number of senior leaders that got to the position of Vice President in corporations, but they were toxic and they were doing a lot of damage in the organization, they were high performers, they were high drive individuals, they were highly intelligent, they contributed a lot of value in addition to the wake of destruction that they left, but I've seen in a number of cases, I've seen an approach where they were put into individual kind of high-level technical track positions where they're not managing people, and they had one last chance, they were given one last chance to learn how to interact with people in a healthy, respectful way without having any direct reports, so they had some other responsibilities, but they were not in a managerial role. It's still risky, but I've seen it work on a number of occasions.

0:39:13.0 Junior: Interesting, well, I appreciate you calling that out, there are many ways to go about these types of things, I think that overall, the tolerance for pathological behavior needs to go down. That's what we're saying. And so there are ways to mitigate that. And it's important that we do. Part of what I wanna get across is the idea that just because it's simple, it's not easy, and we recognize that it's easier said than done, removing a toxic leader, if they're high performing, if the organization is under a crunch, what if this is true, and this is true and X, Y and Z? There will always be 100 reasons to keep them in, and some of those reasons might be really good, but understand that there are unavoidable consequences to keeping them in their seats, and sooner or later you'll pay for it, because toxic leaders create toxic cultures and toxic cultures kill organizations, that's what happens. That's the causal chain. And so if we don't dis-intermediate and say, okay, we're going to involve ourselves before we get to toxic culture, if we don't do that then we're gonna pay the price for it. And it's not gonna be fun.

0:40:30.1 Tim Clark: Well, Junior, I wanna point this out up, and hopefully this is obvious to everyone, if you have a toxic boss and what did we say? We said a toxic boss is someone that exhibits a pattern of destructive, demeaning, disrespectful behavior. If you have a toxic boss, that means that you have already tolerated it long enough to become a pattern, so the fact that a leader has become toxic is evidence that the organization has already reacted, has been reactive and not acted preemptively to help that leader and to help the team, to help the organization. So it's symptomatic of the fact that the organization is already not done their job, because we've allowed a pattern to emerge that was the original problem, now we have a bigger problem on our hands because now it's compounded and we have a toxic leader. Well, we didn't have a toxic leader at the very beginning, so this pattern, it took time, and we allow this pattern to develop and persist.

0:41:39.6 Junior: When people come into your organization, they should be able to bump up against that really early.

0:41:46.4 Tim Clark: Early!

0:41:47.5 Junior: And when I say that, I mean the boundaries, what boundaries exist in the organization, people should feel that really early oh, I got a little zap from the electric fence at this boundary, I guess that that is off-limits. Right. People learn fast. And it doesn't take much.

0:42:07.4 Tim Clark: So Junior, it's what you like to say, the organization... Again, if a toxic leader, if a leader is allowed to become toxic, that is a process, it doesn't happen overnight, that means by definition the organization had a more than zero tolerance for toxic leadership, and so to some extent, to some extent, what you tolerate, you normalize, we tolerated it. Now we can say that we didn't normalize it, and certainly that's going to be the case, you didn't fully normalize it, but you partially normalized it because you tolerated it.

0:42:47.2 Junior: And we need to get to a place where there's peer accountability for these things. It's not just top-down, people need to be able to look side to side and understand, Oh, that's how we do it here, or that's how we don't do it here.

0:43:00.2 Tim Clark: Yeah.

0:43:00.5 Junior: So let's summarize. All leaders influence, we all influence people, and that influence can be healthy or it can be pathological, if it's consistently pathological, we would call that leader a toxic leader, and they become toxic actively, or they're passively complicit to others, toxicity if they're actively toxic. What do we do? We remove them from the organization. If they're passively complicit, we coach them and we hold them accountable. It's important for all of us to remember that teams and organizations do not outperform their leaders, they reflect them. Tim, any final thoughts today?

0:43:37.7 Tim Clark: Act early, be preemptive as an organization, that's the best thing that you can do for the leaders and the teams in the entire organization.

0:43:48.6 Junior: The last thing that I would say is, think about your intent today, think about the intent that you're bringing to your interactions, and think about that intent as it relates to skill, if you ever feel like, wow, my skill is just not quite there, I'm not the leader, I would like to be, you can always bring good intent, and that can be an easy win until you can skill build. So I'd think about that. Well, thank you everybody for listening to today's episode. We enjoyed the conversation very much. We hope you did too. If you found it valuable, please share it with a friend, leave us a like and a review, and we will catch you next episode. I will also put a link to leader factor note number 16. It's a one-pager about active versus passively complicit and go check that out. Alright, catch you next time, everybody, bye bye.


0:44:50.3 Junior: Hey Culture by Design listeners, this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at, and if you found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share it with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about Leader Factor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture by Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior then reach out to us at or find and tag us on LinkedIn, thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design not by default.

Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

What’s a Rich Text element?

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