Toxic leadership: a vicious circle and how to break it

Toxic leadership: a vicious circle and how to break it

15 March 2021
Gerrit Sarens
Gerrit Sarens
  • A couple of weeks ago, we posted a video on toxic people in organizations. We received a lot of comments on this video, especially because lots of people recognized this.

    Today we learn more about toxic leadership from our mentor Wesley Boers.

    The key message is that leadership and culture are strongly connected and can create a vicious circle.

  • Wesley gives us some advice on how to break the vicious circle:

  • Culture is shaped by the worst behavior that people are willing to tolerate

  • The soil of toxic leadership

  • Companies that are strongly focused on financial results, market share, and beating the competition create soil for toxic leadership. Behavior is not considered as important.

    Toxic leaders are convinced they must ‘toughen up their people’ because they think this is the only way they can win.

  • The vicious circle

  • The biggest risk is that your best people leave the company. Typically, the followers stay, but these are not the people who will make your company great. The people who show toxic leadership characteristics stay as they see it as a confirmation that this style is tolerated. This creates a pattern of toxic leadership which creates a toxic culture.

    • Don’t point out individuals; they are only the symptoms.
    • Try to figure out when the vicious circle has started; what were important triggers? Typically, triggers are conflicts in the past that have not been solved.
    • Address the issue by showing that the company does not perform at its full potential
    • Make toxic leaders aware of the impact of their behavior on other people

Struggles of a manager

Managers are

  • not or inadequately trained in this role


    • lack self-confidence
    • don’t know how to go from being a colleague to being a boss
    • need to loosen up on the command & control leadership style
    • must let go of the (technical) expert status
    • cannot give or accept constructive feedback
    • feel pressure to perform as manager
    • have difficulty building relationships
    • want to be liked by everyone or want to be the ‘bad boss’
    • play the hero
  • are struggling


    • stay too involved in operations
    • have trouble prioritizing
    • cannot delegate
    • fear conflict situations
    • disconnect from the team
    • deal with flawed strategic thinking
    • do not relate to higher management
    • lack clear communication skills
    • remain not self-aware
    • avoid difficult conversations
    • miss political antennas
    • ...
  • capable of more


    • need mental preparation as successor
    • need to be able to lead big changes ahead
    • need to learn to be emotionally resilient and in control
    • need to learn to make big decisions fast without all the information
    • must become persuasive presenters
    • need to learn how to cultivate their own personal brand
    • need to learn how to lead by example
    • manage by trust, not by fear
    • need to overly develop empathy
    • ...
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