What is Destructive Leadership and How Does it Prevail?

Angry boss shouting on phone

It is said that even if only 10% of a working environment is toxic, then this is enough to destroy team morale and reduce the productivity and profit of a department. As a business owner, this is an alarming figure. Imagine, then, how much more damaging destructive or toxic behaviours can be to your company when they are coming from the top: from you – the leader?

Of course, nobody (with the extreme exception of a few power trippers) wakes up in the morning with the set goal of belittling or demoralising their team, especially to the point that they may feel like turning in their resignation letter. Yet, in their efforts to reach goals and increase business, many well-intentioned leaders can often adopt or inherit bad habits that chip away insidiously at the healthy foundations of their organisation. This, in turn, leads to a demotivation domino effect, reducing employee satisfaction, productivity, and profits. Naturally, this isn't good news for your company.

To avoid falling into these traps, we've illustrated just what destructive leadership is, and how you can spot the signs before it's too late.

The Allure of Toxic Leaders

As already touched upon, many bad leadership practices are inadvertent. As they go about their busy day, putting out fires and keeping things afloat, many leaders forget to practice self-awareness. They allow small habits to affect their interactions with their team, which gradually eats away at the trust of their people, nullifying their efficiency and creativity. Like weeds in a garden, these factors can take root unnoticed, but when repeatedly ignored, will hinder the growth of your flowers and vegetables. 

The loss of your employees' motivation is not the only consequence resulting from negative behaviour, either. It can lead to bad or rushed decisions, and spill over into the disapproval and disappointment of your clients. So, what are some of these habits – and how can you mitigate them?

Micromanaging 

Many leaders, in an effort to gain a clearer overview of the activities of their workforce, can become overly controlling. Zoning in on every detail of your team's output may make you, as a manager, feel more confident and in control of your responsibilities, but this can seriously backfire. By micromanaging, you make your employees feel as though you see them as incompetent. Your people will perceive that you don't trust them, and that you don't have faith in their skills, knowledge or instincts.

Micromanaging also destroys ingenuity and paralyses a person's ability or willingness to think outside of the box. By giving people space to complete tasks in their own way (within reason, of course), and by showing that you trust in their ability, they will undoubtedly prove you right. 

Disengaging During Meetings

Let's be honest: nobody enjoys sitting through long meetings – especially when emails and tasks are piling up. However, as a leader, you are setting an example for your team to follow. If, while someone else is speaking during a meeting, you start typing away on your laptop, answering emails and not actively listening to what is being presented, you are showing a level of disrespect towards the speaker.

As a result, the employee in question will ascertain that what they are saying is not as important to you as whatever else it is that you are doing. This will breed resentment and frustration – and it's also not a good look for the other staff members present in the meeting. To negate this, you should practice active listening as a core management skill. 

Looking for Someone to Blame

When the result of a project or task isn't as satisfactory as you would like, it is a natural response to try and pinpoint what went wrong. However, destructive leaders can often focus too much on identifying the who rather than the what, which – aside from causing conflict – can result in misleading conclusions before any proper reflection has been conducted.

Besides, even if an objective has failed due to an individual mistake or oversight, you must – as a leader – be willing to take responsibility and refrain from throwing the guilty party under the bus. Of course, the extent of this depends on the situation, but taking the brunt of the criticism for failure is seen as strong leadership that inspires loyalty and enables potential mentoring opportunities. Again, this is about setting an example for people to follow.

Forgetting to Give Praise Where It's Due

On the flip side of this, taking all the credit for a successful project can be equally as damaging to morale. Whether it's hogging the spotlight or failing to recognise the effort and hard work of your team, such actions will cause resentment and a sense of deflation amongst your employees. This isn't just about providing rewards for hard work, either; in the long run, people will be more inclined to put in the minimum effort on future projects as they will feel that there is no incentive to go the extra mile.

Going Back on Your Word

Making promises that you don't – or can't – follow through on is a surefire recipe for cultivating distrust within a company. Again, this is something that may be born out of good intentions, but if you are unsure that you can deliver, err on the side of caution. If you promise a position, a raise, or even ownership of a project to someone, and fail to follow through, this will crush their spirit, motivation, and loyalty.

People don't want to work for fickle and unstable leaders. If you go back on your word more than once, don't be surprised if morale disintegrates, future incentives are ignored, and people begin to look for alternative employment.

Initiating or Engaging in Negative Talk

There's nothing more powerful than a common enemy to bring people together. As a leader, you might attempt to create a connection with your team members by throwing in a sarcastic, negative, or unprofessional comment about another department or a more senior leader. You may do so in an attempt to make you and your team feel a sense of camaraderie and build an "us against the world" team spirit, but consider the bigger picture: how healthy is this for the wider organisation, especially when you have to work and collaborate with other departments?

Consider, too, how such actions reflect on your character. If you see yourself a mentor as well as a leader, then you must consciously work on connecting with your people in positive ways, celebrating your victories together, and recognising how your team's achievements have aligned with the overall goals and vision of the whole organisation.

Furthermore, speaking negatively about another team member when they are not around breeds mistrust. People will begin to wonder if you say the same things about them when they too are not around. This also stands true when speaking negatively about a client to another client.

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Of course, these habits are just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other destructive and toxic attributes that can seep into your management style, including manipulation, playing favourites, berating someone in front of others, bullying, and intimidation.

Therefore, regardless of your status or level of influence in the organisation, you need to be wary of such behaviours and have the self-awareness and humility to eradicate them before they can have a damaging impact. After all, a good leader can be recognised, appreciated, and influential, long before they've been offered a senior position or title, but a destructive one will struggle to repair the damage long after it is done.

What are your views on destructive leadership? Should business owners make more of an effort to be self-aware? And what practices can they put in place to stay on top of any negative behaviours before they begin to take hold? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!