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.

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