Understanding Toxic Managers: Practical Steps to a Better Workplace

By: The Humphrey Group

When you google “toxic manager” one of the first articles is about helping people cope until they can get out. The assumption is that it’s not about if, but when, that employee will leave.

Not only does toxic management drive substantial financial penalties – after all, high turnover translates into recruitment and onboarding costs – but they also disrupt team dynamics, lower morale and decrease productivity. Worse yet, they can damage an organization’s reputation and make it hard to attract and retain top talent. 

It’s clear that the impact toxic managers have on organizations is profoundly disruptive, but the good news is that toxic management is not an inevitable part of any workplace culture. There are some key actions you can take to nip this problem in the bud.


What are the traits of a toxic manager?

The traits of a toxic manager are diverse, and can encompass a wide range of behaviors and characteristics. But they will typically exhibit the following characteristics, or some combination:

  • Poor communication skills. When a leader doesn’t have strong communication skills, this can manifest in ineffective or overly aggressive communication that make it difficult for employees to execute effectively. 
  • Poor soft skills. Falling short in the realm of essential soft skills, such as active listening, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, make it nearly impossible to perform effectively as a leader.
  • Misalignment with organizational values. When a leader’s actions show incongruence with the larger organizational culture, it can lead to anything from confusing workplace dynamics to undermining team fulfillment.
  • Lack of empathy. Failure to understand and connect with team members on a personal level makes it difficult for employees to feel a connection to the organization and can even lead to explicit workplace abuse. 


How to identify a toxic manager?

Recognizing a toxic manager is crucial to mitigating their impact –  but here’s the catch. They often exhibit these detrimental characteristics beyond the surface. Meaning, it’s not always easy to spot. 

The irony is that the true litmus test often comes down to the level of safety that employees feel to express their opinions and emotions, to provide constructive feedback toward leadership, and to make mistakes and be human in the workplace.

The inherent power structures at play typically mean these truths won’t be uncovered – at least not until an employee’s exit interview.


Toxic workplaces and how to handle them

So what can employers do about toxic management in the workplace? Don’t worry. It isn’t necessary to become a CIA-level detective to suss out each problematic individual. In fact, a far better way to address the problem of toxic managers is to take a broad and proactive approach.

The first step is to get clear on your organization’s values. The process of defining workplace values is top down, which means this vision must come from, and truly reflect, the leaders who guide management in their roles.

Then, clearly and consistently communicate these values. Your organization’s values can’t just be in a handbook that employees receive on day one. Infuse your values into all facets of the workplace – most especially in everyday behaviors.

Many organizations get stuck here. Transforming values into behaviors and beliefs can be challenging to undertake internally. This is where third-party leadership training helps to bridge the gap in the education and skill-set managers need to be effective leaders. When you invest in the leadership you want, it becomes the leadership you have.


Unlock transformation: from toxic manager to leader

High turnover, financial costs and diminishing morale. In a world where toxic management leads to escape strategies, the toll it takes on individuals and organizations is undeniable. 

A path to transformation exists through proactive measures, including embracing and consistently communicating organizational values and bridging gaps with programs that infuse managers with the skill-set they need to be true leaders.




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