The Rise of Toxic Leaders: Time to Revisit the Rules


This week I read an absolutely fantastic article in Psychology Today about the rise of toxic leaders and toxic workplaces. The article points out that while leadership development and management theory currently espouse a leadership style that is selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent, and altruistic, we still, when faced with hiring leaders in organizations, hire psychopaths, narcissists, and bullies. What’s worse, we the people who work in these organizations follow those bullies. This problem is pervasive across the U.S. economy and it’s getting worse.

Over my career I have worked for many toxic leaders in many toxic organizations. As a result I have become something of an expert on identifying the warning signs. Here are a list of things to be on the lookout for and do anything you can to diffuse in your organization:

  • All sticks, careful rationing of carrots
  • Cost-cutting without consideration of other factors
  • Bullying of employees by management or tolerated by management
  • High levels of turnover and absenteeism
  • Little or no concern for work-life balance, including insistence on 24/7 availability for work communication

You are not powerless. There are many things you can do to keep an organization from tipping over into a toxic environment or to turn a toxic environment around. Top on that list is hiring.

As an HR leader I have had to explain over and over to people a really great guy who doesn’t do any work is not a good employee. Likewise, the guy who gets everything done and is a complete jerk is also not a good employee. Robert Sutton in his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t and then again in his Harvard Business Review article, points out a fundamental truth that we should never forget: “Demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies.”

Here are three things that I ask everyone who reads this article to commit to doing for themselves and their organizations:

  1. Adopt the no asshole rule. Have those conversations when you’re making hiring decisions. We want really great people who get the job done. Those would be good employees. They are out there and we should hire them.
  2. Refuse to tolerate negative behavior in your organization. For example, when someone asks me, “Can I play devil’s advocate?” I say no. I tell them I am very interested in what they have to say and ask them to please take a moment to re-phrase their comment in a positive and helpful manner.
  3. Be good to each other at work. You spend a lot of time together. Choose to be the kind of inspirational leader that you would want to work for. Seek a mentor who has those positive and productive leadership attributes and learn from that person. Drive your organizational culture; don’t let it drive you.

If none of these things are possible, vote with your feet. Leave. Toxic environments are contagious. They will infect you and you will carry them home to your family and others that you care about. Nothing is worth the toll that a toxic work environment has on your health and well-being. Choose freedom.

Want to read more?

Psychology Today: 5 Reasons Why We Follow Bad Leaders

HBR: Coaching the Toxic Leader

Jeri Buchholz is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Thank you for the article. You just confirmed my speculations. I am in a toxic environment and trying my best to leave. Being good to someone at work doesn’t necessary mean they will be good to you. At some point you have to draw a line.



Thank you for taking the time to post your own thoughts on this topic. Knowing when it is time to move on is an important skill. Good luck! I am sure great things will come to you!