toxic leadership

Toxic leadership traits - what are yours?

We are all a little bit toxic.

Occasionally, when we’re at our worst.

Our toxic traits come out when we’re tired, stressed, and overwhelmed.

Sometimes they’re just bad habits or idiosyncrasies.

Sometimes they’re a bit more serious than that.

Our toxic traits don’t define us. And they don’t have to limit our leadership potential.

Unless we ignore them. Or choose to deny they exist.

When a leader is honest and humble about their shortcomings, they earn tolerance, respect, and followership.

When a leader is blind to them, they are quietly eye-rolled and ultimately lose the team.

The question for today:

Can you be honest about your toxic leadership traits?

No leader is perfect. We all have our flaws and shortcomings. Each of us is on a journey to be the best leader we can be, and that journey takes a lifetime to complete.

Whether you’ve admitted it to yourself yet or not, you have traits that are toxic to your team. Maybe they’re just little habits that annoy your team members. Maybe there are bigger issues at play.

To have toxic traits is to be a leader. To deny your toxic traits is to become a toxic leader.

I have worked for and with several toxic leaders in my career. And while they were varied in the type and level of toxicity, it was their lack of self-awareness – their blindness to the issues – that made them truly toxic.

By contrast, I have worked for and with several wonderful leaders in my career. All of them talented and inspiring, but also flawed. I’ve worked with great leaders who had short tempers. Excellent leaders who would regularly be hours late to meetings. I’ve worked for a micromanager and a day dreamer, both of whom I’d work for again in a heartbeat.

What separated the great leaders from the poor leaders were not the toxic traits themselves. Rather the self-awareness, humility, and genuine desire to improve. Whereas the poor leaders attempted to conceal their weaknesses, the great leaders spoke about them openly, apologized for them, and committed to working on them. That self-awareness was all it took to turn what could be toxic flaws, into forgivable (endearing even) traits I grew to understand and appreciate.

Like all of us, I am a very flawed leader and co-worker. I have several toxic traits and a handful of idiosyncrasies that can be frustrating for my team members. I am a massive introvert, I can be a little bit moody, and I tend to be exceptionally particular about certain aspects of my professional craft. Where I feel blessed is that I have never felt the need to hide these would-be toxic traits. In fact, I enjoy chatting about them and having a laugh with team members at my own expense. I believe it is that open self-awareness that has allowed me to build loyal and engaged teams despite my flaws.

Now, I should be clear that a mere acknowledgement of your toxic traits does not excuse you from working on them. Your goal is to be the best leader you can possibly be, and to serve your team in the best way you can. But I have found if you’re forthcoming with your team about your shortcomings, they will understand you, forgive you, and ultimately follow you.

If the first step to overcoming your toxic traits is to acknowledge them with honesty and humility, the second step is to act.

Here are my tips to manage your toxic traits at work.

1. Build a culture of feedback and test it on yourself

You can’t rely solely on a self-assessment to identify the habits and traits that are toxic to your team. It’s also not enough to rely on company-wide engagement surveys to reveal the truth about your toxic traits. Anonymous survey comments are good way to hear the hard truth, and they can point you in the right direction. But in my experience, you need to go further than that.

My advice for leaders is to build a culture that embraces open and direct feedback. About everything – quality of work and quality of working relationship. It can take a while to get people comfortable exchanging hard truths so freely, but it’s liberating when it happens. A good idea is to start these feedback exchanges in the 1-1s you hold with your direct reports. Spend one hour per quarter with each team member just exchanging feedback; on style, approach, work quality, good and bad habits. Ask for the hard feedback and receive it with gratitude, then return the favor. If it comes from a place of mutual respect and kindness, it will break down barriers, build mutual understanding, and make your team stronger. You will better understand your toxic traits, and your team members will feel heard and understood.

4. Set leadership growth goals and communicate them

With your team’s feedback in hand, you need to set personal growth goals you believe in. The one thing you cannot do, is receive the same feedback from your team members every quarter for multiple years. If you’re going to ask for honest feedback, you need to be prepared to work on your toxic traits. If you’re not interested in seriously working on your toxic traits, don’t open this can of worms. Once you’ve asked for the feedback, received it, and committed to working on it, you will be held accountable by your team.

Here’s what I do: Typically, I’ll take all the feedback I’ve received and map them into 2-3 common themes. I’ll set those traits as my personal growth opportunities and map some new behaviours and habits aimed at improving each one. The last step, and most important, is to explicitly tell your team members what you heard from them, and that you’re committed to working on them. You can do this in a group setting or privately in your 1-1s. The important thing is that you acknowledge the feedback and communicate your action plan. In my experience, this will immediately build support from your team.

3. Build temporary crutches to support your growth goals

If it were easy to overcome our toxic traits, I wouldn’t be writing a blog about it. I can’t just decide tomorrow I’m going to soften my demeanour and become a social butterfly at work. I need to work on these things, and I need help doing it. One thing I’ve found to be extremely helpful when working on traits and behaviors that don’t come naturally, is to architect crutches or scaffolding to support you as you slowly develop new habits.

For example, when I’m under pressure I tend to launch into meetings very abruptly. Rather than spend a few minutes being social and making team members feel comfortable, I’ll short circuit the small talk and dive into the meeting content. The impact is that it immediately adds stress and pressure to the team, and it probably curtails creative thinking and idea exchange. Since it doesn’t come naturally to me to pause, relax, and start meetings by making everyone feel comfortable, I use a little crutch to force me into the habit. In this case, it’s a simple line in my meeting outline that says “team building – 3 minutes”. That one note is all I need to chill out for a minute, chat with the team, and get everyone feeling good before we dive into a serious meeting. One simple crutch that reinforces a new habit, that eliminates one of my toxic traits.

Whether we like to admit it or not, every leader possesses some habits or behaviours that are toxic to the team. That’s just what it is to be a leader. The difference between the great leaders and the poor ones is not the existence of these toxic traits, but our willingness to acknowledge them with humility and take action to improve them. I hope these tips are as helpful to you as they were to me.

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