The Quick Report

5 Signs of Toxic Leadership

In This Article…

• Identify the 5 signs that signal there is toxic leadership in an organization you work for or are involved with.
• Recognize the 3 traits present in good leaders.
• Learn 4 things you can do to deal with a boss who is a toxic leader.


5 Signs That Signal Toxic Leadership

Experts in teaching leadership report that a high percentage of managers fail. There are a variety of reasons for this. 

Some people simply have poor people skills, and that makes them ineffective at managing others. Apathy is another reason some managers fail – they just don’t care.

Personality issues often prevent people from being good leaders. In fact, some have personalities and behaviors that are downright toxic. These are the leaders we will focus on in this article.

Here are five warning signs that signal a potentially toxic leader.

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1. They Display Inconsistent Leadership

A prime example is a boss who gives contradictory orders. A boss who is inconsistent, or breaks promises. Someone who makes a plan then works against the team’s attempt at achieving shared goals. A boss whose only consistency is being inconsistent, maintaining a chaotic environment, and creating disruption.

2. They Make Threats and Punish

Punishment is a method used to stop undesirable behavior. But it isn’t the best leadership tactic to use. Neither is using thinly veiled or overt threats. This is a rule by fear.


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Fear and punishment are poor replacements for encouraging positive and productive behaviors from employees. Punishing people tends to create a backlash of resentment and leads to a desire for retribution. A boss who continually threatens or punishes employees is likely a toxic leader.

3. They Are Self-Serving

Bosses who use their power to achieve self-serving ends can be toxic leaders. Why? They encourage corruption and the same behavior in others. They foster a “me” outlook rather than team spirit.

Self-serving bosses also may give off other toxic indicators such as an inflated ego or a narcissistic personality.

4. They Create Division and Promise Protection

Leadership that allows or creates “cliques” within an organization of “preferred team” — often consisting of top performers — can create division. The difference between healthy internal competition and playing favorites is a very delicate balance.

Often, the “preferred teams” are people who “kiss up” to the boss or demonstrate loyalty. What makes this situation even more toxic is that these cliques are sometimes showered with favors to further garner their loyalty. The leader may promise to protect the positions of followers. Toxic leaders use their followers for defense to maintain their position and/or power. The reason many bad leaders exist is because their followers allow them to remain.

5. They Lie

As shown in the example above, toxic leaders often maintain their position due to the loyalty of their followers who support them. However, followers tend to value integrity and honesty above all in their leaders, research has clearly demonstrated. When leaders are caught lying, especially when they refuse to admit it or ask for forgiveness, they lose the trust of their followers. Based on the odds, a boss who lies to you once will probably do so again. And they’ve probably been doing so already.

4 Ways to Deal with a Toxic Boss

Now that you know the signs of toxic leadership, let’s take a look at things you can do. In most instances, your best option is going to be to leave the situation. But if that’s not possible, we’ll show you the best way to cope and deal with a toxic boss. 

1. Leave or Transfer

In most cases, exiting a situation with toxic leadership will be your best move. Here are some suggestions you are involved in an organization that has toxic leadership.

  • Find another position with another company or organization.
  • If you have a toxic supervisor but like the company, see if you can transfer to another part of the organization.

2. Partner with Colleagues

If you and your colleagues all recognize that you are dealing with a toxic leader, you may be able to band together and focus on accomplishing goals. Support and empower one another and work with as little input from the toxic leader as possible.

However, it should be noted that this technique won’t work with a controlling or power-driven boss.

3. Go Over Your Boss’s Head

Consider going to HR or your boss’s superior and inform them of what’s happening. Just know that this will take courage and you’ll have to trust the system. 

This approach can be much more effective if you can get other team members to join you. This will also keep you from being singled out if your boss wants retribution.

Of course, if the whole organization is toxic, this might not work.

4. Confront Your Boss

Undoubtedly, this will take courage and will be challenging — but it’s a last resort. 

If a leader is unaware of their toxicity and wants to succeed, they may be more open to listening. They also may be open to modifying their behavior.

However, if you have an egotistical ornarcissistic boss, you’ve just identified yourself as the enemy. Your boss may then look for ways to marginalize you or facilitate and/or encourage your departure.

3 Traits Good Leaders Possess

Now that you recognize some of the signs of toxic leadership, let’s take a look at what good leadership looks like.

Read More: 5 Simple Traits of Successful People

1. It Creates Unity

Good leadership makes every member of a team feel like an important part of a whole. Good leaders don’t create “A-teams” or an us-vs-them mentality of internal competition. The adage applies: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

2. It Achieves Results and Limits Collateral Damage

All organizations have a hierarchy, social structure, and internal environment. And there are times in any organization when some internal friction will occur. 

Good leaders are effective in managing internal friction. They find ways to achieve their goals without turning friends into foes or hurting the well-being of their organization.

3. It Shares Leadership

A good leader doesn’t rule like a king. They work with their underlings and followers. They consult with them, care for them, and help share leadership. Effective leaders mentor others in learning leadership skills and responsibilities. They allow others to take ownership of certain factors of a project.