Toxic Leaders and Their Followers

In my last post, I referenced an article from Forbes about toxic leaders. Several of our clients contacted me to chat about the post, and one asked me to write a follow-up post to talk about what happens to followers in the environments that toxic leaders create.

As you may notice, my last post was three weeks ago, and I typically like to write posts every two weeks, but I needed more time to think about this request. There are so many negative consequences for employees when they have toxic leaders, but I believe the most dangerous is the lack of feedback loops.

In healthy organizations, employees have an opportunity to provide feedback about everything. The leaders of those organizations understand that their employees are their greatest assets. When you know that fact, you want to get their input about their successes and obstacles because you want to create an environment that fuels their success and eliminates their obstacles.

Toxic leaders, on the other hand, don't care what their employees think about anything. They intentionally thwart feedback loops because they know the responses will lead to a single conclusion - that their leadership is the obstacle in the organization. Employees, then, have no opportunity to speak up about their experiences and concerns.

The consequences of not having a feedback loop are negative at best and dire at worst:

  • In the best-case scenario, employees are frustrated and, while they may get some results the organization seeks, they cannot achieve the greatest results possible because they just can't fight the system with enough sustained energy to get long-lasting results. Those employees experience burn-out, and will likely leave the organization.
  • In the worst-case scenario, employees are subjected to consistent abuse by their toxic leaders and have no opportunity to resolve the matter without resorting to costly measures, both financially and emotionally (e.g. grievances and lawsuits). Those employees are labeled "organizational enemies," and will fight for their basic human rights (as they should).

The ultimate cost of toxic leadership is damaging the asset that sustains an organization - its people.

The math is simple - would you rather have one toxic leader or all of your employees?