14 Leadership Hacks for Toxic Workplaces: The Checklist

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Part 1 of our 2 part series on Leadership in Toxic Workplaces

by Dr. Sara Baker

I believe in the power of leadership. Leadership is not about being perfect or flawless, it's about being passionate and committed to something bigger than you. It's about having an open heart while being courageous enough to take risks that will push you into new territory, so that when you are there, others can follow your lead.

Leaders Create Toxic Workplaces

A toxic culture does not appear randomly. It is produced when negativity and incivility run rampant in a company and permeate the entire organization.

In short, toxic workplaces with toxic cultures are created by toxic leaders.

Even if the workplace bully is a fellow employee, leadership is responsible for:

  • requiring the employee to correct his/her behavior (overcoming the toxin) or
  • they are responsible for removing them from the workplace (flushing the toxin out).

Leaders who tolerate toxic behaviors despite their power to stop or remove the harassing are just as responsible as the toxic person for creating the culture of toxicity.

Leaders who do not actively engage in toxic behaviors but allow employees to do so ARE part of the problem. 

Uncivil language and actions from workers or leaders should not be tolerated. #KindnessMatters and #StopBullying (among many others) aren't just hashtags, they are quickly becoming the expectation.

Leadership can either intensify the toxicity or leadership can stop it. Toxic leaders may permeate the organization at all levels of management, from front-line managers to middle level all the way up to the CEO.

Or the toxic leaders may be clustered at the top in the C-suite. Regardless, the effects of toxicity are felt all throughout the organization.

14 Toxic Workplace Hacks - A Checklist for Leaders

When you work in a toxic workplace, it can be easy to get sucked into the negative behaviors that the organization expects of its leaders.

Standing out from the crowd and acting in ways that are directly contradictory to the established toxic work culture can be incredibly difficult.

Answer the questions below for insight into potential toxic beliefs or behaviors you may be unintentionally exhibiting and for ideas on how to start shedding your toxic beliefs or actions that will negatively affect your team.


1. Do you use meeting times primarily to provide updates to your team?

Instead use meetings to communicate essential information that cannot be sent out via email AND to answer burning questions from team members and solve problems as needed.


2.  Do you believe that your team is inadequate and really doesn't have what it takes to be successful?

Determine what knowledge and skills your team members have that are beneficial for the organization and then communicate your belief in the value your employees bring to the team.


3.  Do you shut down ideas from your team?

Encourage your team members to share ideas with you and others. Create a positive, open environment where ideas are respected for their value and not for the position of the person who shares them.


4.  Do you believe that you have the best ideas (that's why you're the leader, after all)?

Solicit input from team members to inform your decision-making. Your team will provide insight and perspectives you may have never even considered because you deal with different aspects of your team's work than they do. The frontliners, the people who are hands-on in the weeds of the daily work of your organization will be able to inform solutions much more easily than a leader, who only has the 3,000 foot view of the work.


5.  Do you raise your voice in anger or frustration or do you allow others to communicate with raised voices?

Require that everyone adheres to professional communication norms. If you wouldn't want your grandmother to hear it, then it shouldn't be said in the workplace.


6.  Do you think that your team is comprised of slackers?

Find ways to recognize your team's hard work and dedication. Praise them for their hard work and help them find ways to continue to grow and improve.


7.  Do you use or allow others to use offensive language?

Require people to use language that is considered appropriate by society.


Wait, There's More - Toxic Leadership Checklist continued

8.  Do you tell or allow others to tell offensive jokes?

Do not tell and do not permit others to tell offensive jokes. To Anyone in a professional setting. Ever.


9.  Do you like to "give people a hard time"?

Do not "tease" or "give people a hard time" in any manner that could possibly be interpreted as hurtful. If you like to use humor, then make self-deprecating jokes to lighten the mood.  Everyone likes a boss who doesn't take him/herself too seriously.


10. Do you blame your team when something goes wrong?

Acknowledge ownership of things that go wrong to higher ups and then problem solve with your team for a solution. Don't blame your team. If they mess up, it's still on you, you're the leader.


11. Do you let your team know you are too busy to talk to them?

Create an open-door policy so that your team members feel comfortable coming to you with issues that arise.

Note: Open-door policy doesn't mean that anyone can interrupt you at any time. It means that you want your team to come to you with issues if you are the only one who can help. You will want to help your team grow their independence by thoughtfully searching for solutions elsewhere before they come to you with the issue.


12. Do you prefer that your team fear you?

A feared boss means that the creativity and problem-solving parts of the brain shut down when you are around. If you want to be successful, then you need your team to respect you, not fear you. Respect occurs when your team trusts you, they believe that you are ethical, and they believe you will try to make the best decisions.


13. Do you take the glory for yourself when things go well and blame your team when things don't go well?

When things go well, share the glory with your team and when things do not go well, take the blame for yourself. This doesn't mean that you grovel or beat yourself up when things do not go well. It means that you take the heat from higher-ups for not the problem and you assure them that you and your team will find a solution. Then you go back to your team and without blaming or venting, say, "Okay, we've got an issue and we need a solution. How can we solve this? Let's backtrack and figure out how we went astray and then let's figure out where we go from here."


14. Do you keep your concerns about the company's culture to yourself instead of speaking to higher ups or HR?

Share concerns and insights about possible issues with the company's culture with your higher-ups or with HR. Sometimes, upper leadership is unaware of problems in the middle and on the frontlines. Try to work with the company to find positive solutions to problems so that the employee experience improves, and the organization is more successful.

You Can Defeat Toxic Leadership

Chances are that you are not guilty of most of the more obvious signs of toxic leadership in our checklist. BUT, it's often the little habits that creep in that can shift our balance from a leader who is having a bad day to a leader who spreads toxicity.

Don't let the little behaviors, the ones that you barely notice, bring you down. Your positive choices as a leader are what will help you defeat toxicity and build a team with purpose.

Leadership is tough. It can be a lot of stress and a lot of responsibility.

But it's also incredibly rewarding when you create a high-performing team that is engaged, loves coming to work and makes your job MORE enjoyable rather than less.

You can have a team just like that. One that enjoys work and enjoys doing a good job.

You make the difference.

Seventy percent (70%) of the variance in the engagement of an employee is directly attributable to the direct supervisor according to Gallup.

That means that your ACTIONS make almost all the difference in whether an employee performs well or not.

Ditch the toxic mindset, ditch the toxic behaviors and reform your leadership. Focus on daily actions that push your team to excellence.

We can defeat toxicity in the workplace, together.

Join the Leadership Reformation and be part of a community that is leading positive change in the workplace!

Vision. Empowerment. Accountability. Development. Courage.

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