25 January 2024

Toxic managers: a guide for people professionals

In today's workplace, the prevalence of toxic management has become a growing concern. A shocking 71% of employees have encountered toxic management styles at some point (Stagwell 2023). 31% are currently working under such leadership.

In this article, we want to help HR and L&D teams tackle toxic leadership. We will unmask toxic manager traits and the impact they have on your people and work culture. We investigate the causes of toxic management, and key strategies to deal with it.

What is a toxic manager?

Business Psychologist, Sandra Ordel, defines toxic management styles as:

“characterised by destructive behaviours and negative interpersonal dynamics. Over time, this impacts the wellbeing, morale, and performance of employees.”

Toxic management often hides in the daily interactions a team has with their manager. But if HR and L&D teams are going to tackle the problem, they need to know what it looks like.

The Top 10 Behaviours of a Toxic Manager

Business Psychologist, Sandra Ordel, lists top 10 toxic behaviours of leaders and managers:

1. Resistance to feedback

2. Poor emotional regulation

3. Micromanagement

4. Unhealthy boundaries

5. Unrealistic expectations

6. Intimidation or threatening behaviour

7. Failure to develop team members

8. Unpredictable/inconsistent behaviour

9. Taking credit without recognising the team

10. Lack of empathy

Do you recognise these behaviours? You may have worked under a manager who demonstrated some of these traits. You might have experienced first-hand the effects of a toxic workplace. So, let’s explore the impact of toxic management behaviours on the team.

How does toxic behaviour impact the team?

Toxic managers have a big impact on their teams. They undermine team performance and the emotional and psychological state of team members.

Psychological safety

Toxic managers erode psychological safety within the team. It becomes difficult for team members to share their opinions or express concerns. This lack of safety creates a stifling atmosphere that hinders creativity and innovation.

Emotional turmoil

Toxic bosses can increase levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The constant pressure and negative interactions take a toll on mental wellbeing. Over time, the self-esteem of team members can suffer.

Impaired communication

Open and transparent communication is essential for effective collaboration. When management is toxic, communication breaks down. Team members fear the repercussions of speaking up, and so stay quiet.

Disengagement

A toxic work environment can harm employee engagement and job satisfaction. Team members may disengage from their work and lose confidence. Without this enthusiasm, productivity and performance both suffer.

Strained relationships

Toxic managers breed a culture of mistrust and animosity among team members. Interpersonal relationships suffer, and the team dynamic becomes fraught with tension. Workplace bullying is a risk. Team members may compete rather than collaborate, hindering the achievement of collective goals.

In essence, the impact of toxic management on a team is comprehensive. It affects the professional, the emotional and social dimensions of the team. HR and L&D professionals must understand these dynamics to introduce targeted interventions.

Toxic managers increase isolation

How do toxic managers impact the culture?

HR professionals may not always witness the day-to-day toxic behaviours. But they play a crucial role in monitoring the impact on the organisation’s culture.

Attrition

Toxic management can lead to high attrition rates. Unhappy employees leave for organisations that prioritise staff wellbeing and development.

Lower engagement and higher absenteeism

A toxic work culture contributes to lower employee engagement levels. Team members may disconnect from their work and the broader organisational mission. Absence rates may rise as employees seek respite from a toxic environment.

Poor team performance

Toxic management impacts team performance. In a toxic work environment, collaboration becomes difficult. Silos can develop at a cost to the synergy needed for successful project completion.

Reports of poor mental health, burnout, and stress

Toxic management contributes to poor mental health, burnout, and stress among employees. As mental health challenges increase, costs for the organisation escalate.

What causes toxic leadership?

To begin to tackle the issue, it is important to realise that very few managers set out to be toxic. Instead, managers become unintentionally toxic due to external pressures.

So, let’s look at the contributing factors:

Lack of core people management competencies

Many managers lack essential people management skills. These skills include communication, coaching, feedback and empathy. Without them, managers are ill-equipped to lead their team. Toxic management behaviours can develop as a result.

Promotion not based on people management skills

Many organisations promote people into management roles because of tenure or technical expertise. They overlook the critical leadership capability required. If new managers are not given suitable training, they are set up to fail.

Lack of self-awareness

Some managers may be unaware of how their actions impact the team. Low self-awareness causes blind spots. The gap between how managers see themselves and how others experience them can grow.

Management stress

Many managers are under a lot of pressure. As stress levels build up, they become less able to cope. This can lead to a decline in their effectiveness. Aggressive managers, rigid managers or withdrawn managers may mean your managers are burning out.

Understanding why manager become toxic is crucial for HR and L&D professionals. It sets you up to address the issue in a proactive way. Here are some strategies to consider.

toxic leaders increase mental health challenges

How to deal with toxic management

If HR and L&D teams want to address the problem of toxic management, they need to take a strategic approach. Here are 4 key considerations.

Identify toxic behaviour as the problem

Utilise employee engagement surveys to gather first-hand feedback from team members. The team’s perception of their manager’s leadership style can highlight areas of concern.

Analyse key metrics such as absence rates, attrition trends, and sickness patterns. You may see spikes or anomalies in these metrics that point to toxic leadership styles.

Develop a high potential training pathway

Develop a plan to identify high-potential individuals within your organisation. Then provide targeted training so they are ready to take on a management role. This training should include essential people management skills such as:

  • effective communication
  • psychological safety
  • coaching
  • feedback
  • pressure management
  • wellbeing conversations
  • emotional intelligence
  • manager resilience

Provide ongoing manager training

Establish a culture of continuous learning for your existing managers. Focus on skills that build psychological safety within teams. Inspire your mangers to create a healthy, high performing team culture.

As new challenges emerge, adapt your manager training programmes. Ensure managers are able to navigate their team through evolving business dynamics.

Assess manager resilience

Leverage robust tools such as the Wraw psychometric to assess manager resilience. These assessments help managers understand how their mindset and behaviour impact their team. They also provide a road map for future development.

Introduce 360-degree feedback for managers

Use 360-degree feedback to collect insights from peers, team members and supervisors. This feedback can help managers understand how they impact their team.

Invest in 1-1 manager coaching

1:1 coaching can help managers understand the impact they have on their team. Supported by their coach, they can build their commitment to positive leadership.

Conclusion

HR and L&D play an essential role in addressing toxic management. The strategies here will help you build a positive management culture. You don’t need to do everything straight away. The important thing is to start.

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