Let’s talk about toxic leadership

Are you somewhat toxic? Do you have toxic leaders in your organization? Amidst all the social issues bubbling up under the pressure of pandemic, Rideau Hall highlighted a tough leadership topic in January – toxic leaders and a toxic workplace.

After several allegations and an independent review of the workplace abuse allegations, the Governor General, Julie Payette, resigned. The allegations included Payette and her assistant, Di Lorenzo, ganging up on staff, calling them lazy and belittling their work. Not a week went by without staff leaving Di Lorenzo’s office in tears. ( Global News ).

In my late twenties I worked for a recruitment agency in Johannesburg. The owner was an absolute nightmare to work with. She was temperamental, yelled often, made snide and cutting remarks about anyone anytime in public, and had no problem berating and belittling people in front of an audience. My tenure there was short lived, thank goodness. I moved on quite quickly. Nobody should or needs to be exposed to such dysfunctional behaviour anywhere. 

Sadly though, in a recent study, 94% of the participants stated they had worked at one time or another with a person who created a toxic work environment. The study highlighted that the profit/non-profit and gender of the toxic people was about 50/50. The behaviour denoted as toxic didn’t always meet the common definitions of bullying or harassment. Subtle behaviours such as shaming, passive hostility and team sabotage play a large role in creating a toxic atmosphere as well.

The cost?

Low productivity, low engagement, high turnover, to the company. But the abused employees take their injuries home, it impacts their home life, and their health as well. It is huge.

Who are typically guilty?

People never leave a job, they leave a boss. Quite often it is a boss, however, super stars and organizational icons are often quite guilty as well. No-one should ever be exempt from organizational civility. No pit-bulls, no prima donnas, no kiss up and kick downs, no untouchable superstars.

What types of behaviour build toxicity in organizations?

  • Moody and unpredictable responses
  • Communicating in a style that leaves people unpleasantly emotional
  • Talking about others behind their back
  • Dishonest communication – saying one thing to one person and something different to another
  • Bullying or abusive behaviours like yelling or swearing
  • Unreasonable or excessive demands…and then threatening people if the demands are not met
  • Vague, unclear expectations that are impossible to complete
  • Team members are not held accountable to equal standards, either in their results or in the way they treat others
  • Feedback is not appreciated, accepted or acted upon
  • When feedback is provided, it is almost always negative
  • Tolerating biases in a team.
  • Micro aggressions

How do we manage this?

A toxic workplace often has a high staff turnover, but the toxic person doesn’t leave. The high potential and high performers find a better place to work.

There are steps we can take to change the workplace to a place where employees feel safe and valued.

  1. Speak the truth: The toxic culprit has to hear the truth about their behaviour and know that changing their behaviour is a condition of continued employment. The truth has to come from a person with authority in the organization. And if the toxic person is the big boss, leave.
  2. Conduct a 360 assessment to provide specific feedback that the toxic person can work on to change.
  3. Hire an executive coach. When someone has been allowed to negatively impact an entire workforce, and group, it is difficult to change Their style. Working with a coach will help build an acute self-awareness and provide the tools to change behaviours, and the beliefs underlying those misdirected behaviours.
  4. Extend honest feedback to the protectors and enablers as well. Toxicity is a systemic cancer. Toxic people remain toxic because the system tolerates it. There is always a person (the Pollyanna) who protects others from the toxic person, and also an enabler – see Payette and Di Lorenzo’s show at Rideau Hall.
  5. Bring the organizational values into conversations about expectations for daily performance.

People spend a lot of time at work, it is a substantial part of life. None wants to, or should ever have to work in a place that causes perpetual stress, anger and misery.

And finally, consider this quote – “Only the guy [person] who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” Jean Paul Sartre


Connolly, A. (2021, January 21). Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigning amid scathingRideau Hall workplace review. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/7590462/julie-payette-rideau-hall-toxic-workplace-probe/

Kim, J. (2016, July 6). 8 Traits of Toxic Leadership. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/culture-shrink/201607/8-traits-toxic-leadership-avoid

Slaytor, M. E. (2009, July). 7 ways to fight workplace toxicity. Smart Brief. https://www.smartbrief.com/original/2009/07/7-ways-fight-workplace-toxicity