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The Psychology Of Toxic Leaders

The Psychology Of Toxic Leaders

There is no fixed definition for “toxic leadership”. In his conceptual framework, Jean Lipman defines toxic leadership as “ a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations and non-followers alike”.  It is clear if a leader has a bunch of traits or temperaments capable of triggering toxic emotions or thoughts in the subordinates, we can call him as “toxic leader”.

In her article on toxic leadership, Shonna Waters, a famous organizational psychologist, and certified leadership coach list eight characteristics of toxic leadership.

  1. Frequent lying or inconsistent expectations
  2.  Doesn’t listen to feedback
  3.  Arrogance
  4. Places importance on hierarchy
  5. Discriminates against employees
  6. Lacks confidence
  7.  Incompetent at their job
  8.  Self-interested

In addition to this, studies that took place across the world recognize some traits in toxic leaders such as oppositional behavior, power politics, over-competitive attitude to employees, perfectionist attitude, abuse of the disciplinary system, glib attitude, lack of self-confidence, poor self-control, or restraint, etc.

Why they are toxic?

Toxic leadership, what causes it?. It’s quite difficult to answer. However, if you delve deep into the personality traits of toxic leaders, for sure, you can see some “mismatch” between the “desire” and the “ability” –ie desire to become a leader and the ability for it. The leader might have, somehow, grabbed the chair but ended up spewing toxicity.

Often, toxicity appears as the side effect of a leader’s desperate attempt to camouflage his inadequacy. Toxic leaders stubbornly desire to sit at the top. But they will not have the requisite intellectual acumen or the social skills the position demands. Their perceptions and perspectives about “leadership” will be not only narrow but rigid too, leaving little space for learning.

When a person covets a leadership position, usually, there will be a dominant motivating factor behind it. Salary hike, status, wish to implement one’s knowledge, wisdom, or expertise for a social cause, strong wish to make a collective change in the organization …. list goes on. But the motivating force of a toxic leader will be very much rooted in his personality problems.

A feeling of worthlessness, unresolved psychological conflicts, sense of being persecuted, vengeance suppressed deep in mind, relationship issues in the domestic front, feeling of being abandoned…all these may fire up an intense desire in individuals to dominate and prove their worth in the world outside. In other words, an intense desire to “lead” might be a desperate attempt to resolve some psychological issues festering within.

The first and foremost feeling a toxic leader is likely to have immediately after occupying the position is a sense of “emptiness”. He comes to know that his “insatiable desire to dominate” is the only thing that differentiates him from his subordinates. Any frustration stemming from such a feeling of inadequacy is always dangerous.

How it affects the group

Often, narcissist or histrionic personalities, when they occupy leadership positions, the organization comes to a standstill. Employees start juggling with issues that were not there before. Very often, issues will be related to trust. The entire organization’s trust quotient will drop. Employee engagement will slow down as their energy gets dissipated instead of being channelized for innovation and growth of the organization.

The collective mind of employees gets detached from occupational objectives or the mission and vision of the organization. This is the immediate effect of toxic leadership. The brain of each employee thriving under toxic leadership will be charged with emotions rather than reasoned judgments. They compulsively engage in devising ways to retaliate or to flee, or remain immune from toxicity.

Toxicity needs conflicts and confrontations

Toxic leaders love problems than their solutions. They always make sure that the situation is tense either at the individual or collective level. They always need some unresolved issue to deal with. It helps to cover up their inadequacy. They spill their toxicity while dealing with cooked-up or whacky problems.

They accuse individuals, spread the wrong messages, and hurt emotions. By doing so toxic leader wants to give the impression that it is not his personal inadequacy as a leader but the inadequacy inherent in the situation which is preventing him from creating a good working atmosphere.

Toxicity needs manure

There will be something or somebody around helping a toxic leader to remain in his/her toxicity. It might be a higher authority that has some vested interest in the organization. Such authority prefers a divide and rule policy to a democratic working atmosphere. Or it might be some irreplaceable but outdated, dysfunctional organizational policies. For example, if in an organization leaders are selected according to the sole criterion of seniority of members, there is no option but to suffer in silence whatever personal traits leaders are carrying with them. The same is the case with nepotism

However, no toxic leadership can thrive without at least one hand to support and give assurance to them that their ways are flawless. A toxic leader is a personality grounded in “insecurity”. And he cannot stand and thrive on his own.


  • Employees can demand for a “redressal mechanism” in the organization. This mechanism will function as a conduit for resolving resentments.
  • Learn to speak aloud whenever confronted with injustice from your leader.
  • Learn to be assertive. Master the art of mixing assertiveness and respect in right proportion while communicating to the leader.
  • Be positive in your intentions. Then the words and deeds that you choose to be assertive will not violate boundaries.
  • Enquire about your colleagues’ stance about the leader before crafting your own actions.
  • Seek the help of higher authorities.
  • Have well awareness about legal protection for workplace harassment.

Dr. Jeny Rapheal

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