May 3, 2022
Every organization has a culture, and every culture is shaped by the modeling behavior of its leaders. If we think about culture on a continuum, we might label one end “healthy and constructive” and the other “unhealthy and destructive.” At the far side of the unhealthy and destructive end is the toxic zone—a hostile environment where abusive patterns of interaction inflict mental, emotional, and psychological harm.
A toxic culture is characterized by infighting, drama, abuse, and often illegal behavior. In addition to the devastating psychic damage a toxic culture can cause to employees, it can also threaten the viability of an organization through lost productivity and poor performance.
Most toxic behavior is subtle. Subtlety is safer than overt toxicity because it provides deniability. For example, there are mild ways to bully, harass, discriminate, or publicly shame. Why openly demean or belittle when you can do it privately or softly? It’s the brazen acts that get people in trouble. A menu of subtle behaviors might include ignoring a question, neglecting a visible need, failing to provide feedback deliberately to maintain ambiguity, withholding time and attention, excluding someone from a meeting or conversation, or simply piling on the work under the guise of mock appreciation.
These and a thousand other examples make a toxic culture easy to perpetuate. And yet to employees these violations of human decency are painful and debilitating. Subtle acts may not be as visible, but they can marginalize, embarrass, and punish just as effectively as the more aggressive acts.
Given the serious nature of toxic cultures, it’s easy to assume that they are fairly uncommon. That would be a big mistake. Last month, my firm, LeaderFactor, conducted a global employee survey in which we asked 961 employees across a variety of industries and organizations this question: “Have you ever worked in a toxic culture?” Nearly nine in ten (86%) of those surveyed said they had. That is a strikingly higher percentage than many people assume. Sadly, toxic cultures are more than common; they are rampant.
In our research with employees who had worked in toxic environments, we discovered a crucial distinction: Some employees had actively toxic bosses, while others had passively complicit bosses. An actively toxic boss personally engages in toxic behavior. After an abusive episode, most actively toxic bosses are more concerned about their image than the harm they have caused to their victims. Nearly always remorseless, they tend to focus on impression management. Rather than take responsibility for their behavior, they try to influence the perceptions of others and control the flow of information as they interact with those who are not directly under their charge. They focus on the positive presentation of themselves to counteract any negative feedback that may be circulating about them.
Actively toxic bosses are typically motivated by unbridled ambition and suspended ethical restraints. They selfishly pursue their personal agendas on the backs of those who report to them. And to add another layer of deception, they often publicly acknowledge the value and contribution of their employees.
Passively complicit bosses, on the other hand, represent the negligent side of leadership. They allow abusive episodes and tolerate cycles of mistreatment through the enabling behavior of being passive, aloof, or absent. In short, they let others engage in toxic behaviors without consequence. Passively complicit bosses have various motivations for their avoidance. Some believe the fear that others induce through toxic behavior is productive and provides accountability that they, themselves, are either unable or unwilling to provide. Some are intimidated by the toxic members of their teams, and despite their positional power, yield to the influence of bullies and abusers. Finally, some passively complicit bosses are preoccupied with other things, and it is that aloofness that makes them dangerous.
The passively complicit boss may be an absentee landlord, creating a power vacuum filled by other team members who become the de facto leaders. It’s often neglect and lack of communication that devastate employees the most. Those on the receiving end feel the sting of silence and the void of validation. For example, I spoke with a purchasing manager at a large corporation who left her organization due to extreme neglect. She told me her boss didn’t give her even small crumbs of feedback. She could live without recognition, but not without basic appreciation.
Based on our research, less than 5% of actively toxic bosses will square up to their own behavior, acknowledge the harm they have caused, and earnestly strive to change and make things right. A high percentage of actively toxic bosses are deeply, if not pathologically, narcissistic. They repeatedly justify their harmful behavior until they permanently disable the human alarm system we call the conscience or moral sense. Once they get to that point, any residual compunction is a mere speed bump.
Specifically, actively toxic bosses tend to display one or a combination of three common patterns of deflection—denial, blame, and excuse. Toxic bosses in denial refuse to acknowledge their own behavior. Those exhibiting blame will point to the infractions of others in an attempt to minimize their own failures. Those who demonstrate excuse often acknowledge their behavior as “strong” or “firm,” but rationalize it as the only way to extract the required performance from others. Or they point to high standards, stress, and a low margin for error as a license for rudeness and incivility. I’ve even seen some actively toxic bosses label their predatory behavior as “courage,” with the claim that they are the only ones who are willing to have the tough conversations that are required to hold others accountable.
Conversely, passively complicit bosses are often coachable. As the figure below illustrates, we can think about coachability as a function of self-awareness and willingness. If both dimensions are high (upper-right quadrant), the passively complicit boss will develop rapidly and overcome the liabilities of his or her enabling behavior. If the individual has high willingness but low self-awareness, that willingness will eventually lead to more self-awareness and the individual will most likely make steady progress. On the other hand, if the boss is self-aware but lacks willingness, the lack of willingness will become a limiting factor and significantly slow the individual’s progress. Finally, if the passively complicit boss is low on both accounts, he or she is “crawling” or simply stuck. They have insufficient levels of both self-awareness and willingness to see the liability of their behavior and want to improve it.
To summarize, there’s almost never a workaround for an actively toxic boss. In almost every case, they must be removed from their positions because of their unwillingness to acknowledge and take responsibility for their behavior. Passively complicit bosses, on the other hand, are frequently coachable if given honest feedback and the opportunity to improve. Teams and organizations don’t outperform their bosses, they reflect them. That’s why sources of toxicity must be identified and either removed or coached.