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How to Not Be a Toxic Leader: 5 Things to Avoid

A toxic workplace is detrimental to employees and their productivity. It also repels the best and brightest talent from wanting to step through your doors. So, it’s important to discover what creates a toxic work environment. But what if the cause of the negative or hostile environment is its toxic leadership?

If you want to help teach employees how to be good leaders rather than toxic leaders, here are a few things your organization can teach its leaders to avoid so they do not become a part of the problem:

1) Not Being Willing to Learn, Grow, or Adapt as a Leader

Knowing how to be a good leader does not always come naturally. For some individuals, it’s critical that they take the time and make an effort to improve their leadership abilities. Toxic leaders, however, are those who are not willing to grow or learn new information that will benefit them professionally or their organizations.
Big Think expert and dean of the Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria says he believes that learners make for better leaders and that people have natural capabilities as leaders that need to be developed. In an interview with Big Think, he explained:

“Whatever the natural sort of capabilities that you have as a leader, it can grow and can be developed. If you have a lot of it and you don’t invest in it, it will not increase. If you have very little, but you invest in it, it can dramatically increase.”

2) Refusing to Experiment or Embrace Change

One of the biggest mistakes that many leaders make is only asking “why?” instead of also considering “why not?” when it comes to evaluating new ideas. This can be a form of toxic leadership because a toxic leader is content with an organization maintaining its status quo and is not willing to take risks or embrace new opportunities that can help it improve and thrive. This mindset stifles a company’s creativity and potential future growth.
For some toxic leaders, it can be a fear of change. For others, it’s simply bad management or poor leadership. Regardless of the reason, Big Think expert, management consultant, and futurist Lisa Bodell says that, ultimately, a change-resistant mindset and assumptions hold people back from implementing effective change. In an interview with Big Think, Bodell noted:

“Change must be supported from the top down. But, where change happens is from the middle out… Those are the ones that are going to be creating the change; they’re the ones that have to be in power to do it.”

3) Being Unable (or Unwilling) to Be Mindful of Others

Emotional intelligence is a critical skill for effective leaders that emphasizes perseverance, social perception, communication, persuasion, and cooperation. It’s about a person being objectively aware of their emotional state and using their knowledge to build relationships with others. People lacking these essential skills often provide poor leadership.
Toxic leaders lack the emotional competence and awareness of their successful counterparts. Every interaction that a good or toxic leader has with an employee makes an impact — whether positive or negative — and those with positive or negative attitudes can influence and affect others.
However, as an article in Inc. says, leaders must be aware of and own the environment they create. In the piece on toxic workplace environments, the author cites a quote from Big Think expert and Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book, “Dying for a Paycheck:” “According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor.” Toxic leaders have far more power than they may realize in terms of affecting their employees’ health.

4) Engaging in Unprofessional Behaviors and Mishandling Issues

When toxic leaders are ineffective at handling information or resolving conflicts, that kind of poor leadership behavior will likely be seen throughout the organization. Unprofessional behaviors, such as not being honest, talking negatively about others behind their backs, and simply ignoring conflicts are bad management practices and can significantly impact productivity and performance.
According to a study by RHR International, the best performing leaders approach communication and conflicts differently:

“87% of high-performing leadership teams handled conflict effectively and were transparent and open with information, and 82% exchanged constructive feedback with each other. Only 44% of low-performing leadership teams handled conflict effectively and 52% exchanged feedback and were transparent with information.”

5) Being Cynical and Stifling Creativity

Big Think expert and U.S. Senator Cory Booker says that cynicism is a toxic state that holds leaders and others back from accomplishing incredible things. In an interview with Big Think, Booker said:

“This idea of cynicism about the challenges is a toxic mental and spiritual state because it undermines your creativity and it inhibits your ability to see faint possibility of its glaring challenges. And, once you turn yourself into an agent of creativity and positivity, despite the wretchedness of whatever reality you’re facing, you have breakthroughs.”

To help your organization’s leadership team learn how to be a good leaders and avoid toxic leadership practices, check out Big Think+. Our expert-led courses can help leaders learn to clarify and set goals, implement productive habits, embrace opportunities for growth, and develop greater awareness.

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