Ever Notice the Similarities Between Toxic Business Leaders and Politicians?
Now that the 2014 elections are over, it may be safe to write about politicians without being accused of partisanship. In fact, the sad truth seems to be the same, regardless of political party.
Recently, my colleagues and I published a book based on research we conducted on toxic workplaces, exploring their characteristics, understanding employees' and managers' experiences in unhealthy settings and identifying the ways individuals survived and rose above poisonous circumstances.
One core factor we identified was the presence of toxic leaders. I recently edited an article on the top 10 traits of a toxic leader and was immediately struck by how similar the characteristics were to those of successful state and national politicians. Here's an abbreviated description of these toxic traits:
1. Appearing great, at first.
Toxic leaders are often articulate, skilled socially and persuasive. They can be smart and highly skilled in a specific area of expertise. Many demonstrate that they can motivate others to generate positive results. Sometimes they start out as largely healthy individuals but over time pressures and compromises degrade their integrity.
2. Being extreme about achieving goals.
Most toxic leaders are intensely committed to achieving goals. Hyperfocused on accomplishment, they use all their resources to pursue their objectives and are adept at convincing others to join them. It is important to note, however, that their goals are often driven by self-interest and self-promotion.
3. Acting manipulative.
Toxic leaders are masters at manipulation -- of information and people. They’re masters of making things look good when they’re not. They choose what they will share, when, with whom and in what manner, manipulating the presentation of information. Through guilt, shame and threat of embarrassment, toxic leaders manipulate those who work for them.
4. Being narcissistic.
Toxic leaders truly believe that they’re superior -- that they’re brighter and more talented than anyone else. They think they are the reason for everything good that has happened and therefore they should get the credit. They conclude that their desires, image and success should come first. It is all about them. Although they won’t say so publicly, they believe rules don’t apply to them but are made for everyone else.
5. Stealing credit.
Most toxic leaders have no qualms about taking full responsibility for any success that occurs. Whether they have been involved or not, if the positive result occurs near their presence, they’ll proclaim the results are due to their superior vision, insight and efforts. When members of the team commit extraordinary amounts of time and effort to make an event successful, their work is not mentioned. Somehow the leader gets all the glory.
6. Being condescending.
Toxic leaders almost always relate to others in a condescending manner, except when they praise others in order to manipulate them. Smooth and socially suave in public, they reserve their condescension for workplace interactions.
Since they believe no one else is as talented or bright as they are, they think their ideas should always be received with respect and deference. Be forewarned: Do not challenge them in front of others. When they don’t feel appropriately respected, they tear down people they see as a threat to their authority.
7. Being inauthentic.
At first, toxic leaders may act like they care deeply about the organization’s cause and people. In fact, one type of toxic leader is the warm, engaging leader who comes across as caring greatly for others.
But this is a superficial act. Over time, their true persona becomes apparent to those around them. The leaders’ lack of authenticity becomes evident in other ways: They don’t have the talents and skills they appeared to have. Their prior experience and education may turn out to be a sham. Often the results they bragged about achieving in other organizations are exposed as grossly exaggerated.
Related: 4 Ways to Diffuse a Toxic Workplace
8. Using people.
For the sake of “the larger cause,” toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal. Toxic leaders rarely, if ever, take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
They successfully attribute failure to others. They’re talented at rewriting history and coating themselves in Teflon, allowing nothing bad to stick. They’ll ask team members, “How could you let this happen? I’m terribly disappointed in you.” People will walk out of a meeting asking, “What just happened? How did the boss dodge that bullet?”
9. Failing to address real risk.
Toxic leaders tend to ignore issues that they don’t care about or those who don’t help them look good. Issues crucial to the health of the organization, such as conflicts among staff, go unaddressed.
Often toxic leaders focus on immediate gains, neglecting long-term implications and simply saying, “It will all work out over time.” Many of these problematic leaders pay extreme attention to presenting an image of helping the organization succeed financially but ignore the realities of the true fiscal situation.
10. Leaving before things fall apart.
One thing most toxic leaders know how to do well is getting out of town before everything falls apart. Some make out like a bandit financially or leap to a larger organization into a higher position of leadership and influence while their former companies clean up the ruin they left.
So can it be? Are the characteristics that make a business leader toxic the same traits that make politicians successful?
Don’t be misled by the apparent success of politicians who demonstrate these characteristics. Business managers who attempt to use these behaviors in the world of work will eventually fail in leading others successfully -- and will probably live a lonely life, as well.