HR Management & Compliance

Leaders’ Toxic Behaviors—And the Courage Required to Stop Them

There seems to be a similar haunting refrain in many of today’s headlines: Leaders who have spiraled out of control – victimizing employees, abusing power, and generally reproving the time-tested principle that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

While guilt or innocence will be left either to the court of public opinion or the judicial system, there is one conclusion that can be drawn: It’s clear that arrogance and position have created a petri dish for questionable leadership behavior.

The question for Human Resources professionals—and all employees—is this: “How could someone rise to a level of authority that they become toxic—and what are our responsibilities when we see it happening?”

Leader Toxicity and Historical Perspective

The first question demands a far more in-depth response than can be offered in one article. Suffice it to say that “today’s news is not new.”  Take a step back into history and balance leader toxicity over the ages with contemporary headlines and we’ll see that unchecked reigns of tyranny have almost always yielded the same effects—abuse of power.

The second question, on the other hand, compels. What are our responsibilities when we see the first hints of toxic behavior?

A few foundational points for our consideration:

  • Tyrants are made strong when surrounded by sycophants. Check the latest political melodrama, Hollywood scandal, or corporate debacle and you can easily circle the accused with the entourage who watched behaviors veer from questionable to something far worse.  I call the unctuous subservience the “Dance of the Toadies”—and it represents the sometimes nameless, faceless observers who could have done something but sacrificed integrity for safety—or perhaps a paycheck.
  • Full abuse of power is seldom immediate. It takes place in gradients as the leader tests his or her ability to bully, oppress, and abuse either the system or others. Minus checks and balances, some will push to extremes—others will simply touch the edges.
  • Abusers grow strong when the light isn’t cast on them but instead on others. In corporations we see this everyday—the pressure placed on underlings to perform their job and to please the boss blurs the reality of supervisor toxicity—sometimes making the abnormal seem normal.

HR’s Part to Play

Which carries us back to our role as HR professionals in either fueling leader toxicity or in taking action. Here are a few simple but highly effective steps that can taken:

The Antecedent Factors

  • In every company there can or should be a statement of standards that outlines job competencies for every position—even for the CEO. For an HR professional the compelling question is: Are these clearly communicated and is there an understanding of what they mean—for every employee?  Minus a statement of standards, we are left with individual interpretation of what should be—and that is a slippery slope to navigate.
  • Are there general guidelines in place as regards harassment, equal opportunity, affirmative action, gender bias, etc.? Have these been communicated and has every employee signed off on their training to ensure understanding and commitment to those expectations?  Again, absent written policy any company is subject to leader or employee abuse.

The Day-to-Day Factors

  • What’s the level of transparency in the organization as regards problem solving and/or filing employee complaints? Is that subject to working through the “chain of command,” and if so, how does that align with a faulty leader who is a part of that chain?
  • What are the checks and balances as regards performance feedback—and how do the competencies cited in the statement of standards factor into that same feedback?
  • Is there a viable forum for employees to speak out and how do you know it’s viable? In my years in the corporate world I saw firsthand that some companies worked extra hard to ensure “safe zones” for that kind of dialogue, yet other instances where complaining was tantamount to career suicide.

The Human Factor

  • One objective, fair-minded individual can dramatically change the toxic arc of an abusive leader. How they do that requires:
    1. The courage to say, “No – this behavior is not acceptable and I will not tolerate it.” If that’s a statement that can’t be made to the perpetrator (and many times it can’t) then the conversation must go to either HR or another respected leader in the organization. But it must take place—a toxic leader who is allowed to grow in power will not willingly change his or her behavior pattern.
    2. The diligence to stand strong—even when political forces are against you. Toxic leaders often play around the edges of appropriate because they know they can.  Again, minus a system of checks and balances, the tyrant grows strong. The price of liberty is vigilance—from all employees.
    3. An appreciation for human dignity. In my earlier years in the corporate world I was invited to a dinner with a senior leader. In the course of those 3 hours I was to watch a condescending jerk abuse the waiters and the wine steward—and then turn to me and turn on the charm. I learned something that night that carried with me for a career: Fully-formed adults treat everyone with respect and dignity. Tyrants look for a way to abuse. I stayed silent that evening—and I regretted it.

The Genovese Syndrome

In the early morning hours of March 13th, 1964 a young lady named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens, NY.  The murder would become the subject of a national debate—primarily because some 3-dozen local residents were within earshot of the tragedy—and reportedly did nothing.

The specifics around the full nature of what took place that night have been debated in the years since, to include exactly what people did and did not see. But one relevant point remains, and in many ways it represents the same challenge all of us face when we see abuse of power or the subjugation of others.

The Genovese Syndrome speaks to the silence of those who could make a difference but opt to do nothing at all.

Toxic leaders grow only when bystanders make that same decision.

Tim Cole Tim Cole is the Founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance. His book, The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career is an Amazon Best Seller and offers practical direction to both senior leaders and employees on how to cultivate a rich culture – and ensure a significant work experience.  You can learn more at or follow Tim @officialtimcole


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