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Toxic leaders exist in all types of organizations. They display an antisocial work behavior such as disrespect, verbal and psychological abuse, bullying and abusive supervision. In extreme cases, the actions of toxic leaders show psychopathy. In the majority of the cases, such leaders leave the organizations or teams that they were leading as well as employees in worse off cases than they found them. This paper evaluates the concept of toxic leadership and how it contaminates organizations. First, an exploration of leadership as a whole is presented before narrowing down to the idea of toxic leadership. Second, a justification of the existence of toxic leadership takes place by evaluating the data collected from a manufacturing company. Next, the available literature on toxic leadership is presented. Finally, the essential characteristics of a toxic a leader and the effects of toxic leadership are discussed.

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Leadership is a concept that is always evolving as the time and environment change. Over the past few decades, various authors have associated leadership with the positive results accompanied by an image of a charismatic and heroic leaders who have the ability to save the world. This heroic picture of leadership was made by the authors who always focus on the right side of leadership. In an attempt to answers the questions of how to become a good leader, these authors are inclined to romanticize and glorify leaders. In their theories, leaders are required to have the ability to put aside their self-interest and uphold the high moral standards. Many authors have supported the idea that leadership predominantly depends on good leaders. The authors, such as Curry and Hogan, also maintained the unrealistic picture that defined leadership as the pursuance of a common goal for the welfare of a group. This definition of leadership implies the persuasion, rather than domination.

The arguments discussed above overlook the existence of a dark side of leadership ,where leaders are bad. Up to date, only few studies have investigated the shadowy side of leadership. The concept of bad leadership has been evolving, but it is still blurry. The authors who have explored it do not give a clear picture, and they label it differently as abusive, bullying, aversive, pathological, narcissist, evil and toxic. All these labels of the dark side of leadership have potential links. This paper will stress on one of these labels which is ‘toxic’. Etymologically, the word toxic originates from a Greek word ‘toxicus’ which is used to refer to a poison. In the English dictionary, the word toxic will often be linked to a venom, snakes, alcohol and poisonous solvents. The first scholar to link leadership with toxicology was Dr. Lynn Whicker, who proposed three types of leaders in her research. They were the trustworthy leader, the transitional leader and the toxic leader (Morrow, 2015).

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The research shows that the hallmark of toxic leadership is destructibility. Therefore, toxic leadership can be tied to destructive leadership. An article by Jha (2015) defines destructive leadership as the systematic and recurrent set of behavior displayed by a leader that has a considerably destructive effect on the organization and employees’ outcomes. According to Jha (2015), toxic leaders spread their poison by over controlling their followers. The over control of subordinates poisons creativity, enthusiasm, autonomy and innovative expression. Lipman- Blumen observed that toxic leaders use harassment, manipulation, and charm to undermine their followers (Jha, 2015).

Description of the Problem

Toxic leadership is an unfortunate reality in many organizations. The toxic and destructive behaviors of the leaders hurt their subordinates by breeding poisonous and enduring effects in them. When powerful people have selfish motives, they can become manipulative and generate a dysfunctional atmosphere. Ultimately, they leave their subordinates and the organization worse off than they found it (Landis, Hill & Harvey, 2014).

Scholars have metaphorically explained toxic leadership as an iceberg in the fog. On the surface, the behaviors of the leaders are hardly noticeable, but the ultimate human consequences at the bottom of the iceberg are invisible. Several individuals of a manufacturing company were interviewed in a semi-structured manner so that the respondents could explore for themselves their experiences of toxic leadership and antisocial work behavior. Overall, the respondents reported 75 different cases of the antisocial work behavior. Out of those 75 cases, 32 involved bullying, while 21 referenced  an abusive supervision. In 26 of the reported cases, the perpetrator of the antisocial work behavior or toxic leadership was a specific manager or the management as a whole.

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Perceptions of Other Researchers

The concern of toxic leadership tends to continue growing as observed by Morrow (2015). Nevertheless, the evolution regarding the available literature is slow. There is a huge gap between the literature available on the good side and the shadowy side of leadership. In an effort to achieve a definition that incorporates both the good side and the dark side of leadership, leadership can be defined as a social process, where the leaders influence and even manipulate their subordinates to achieve good or evil ends. Morrow (2015) describes a leader’s power as the ability to direct and control the change, pointing out that all leaders should be able to make use of their positional power. However, the question is whether the power bestowed upon the leader will be used in a good way to benefit the organization. The power should be used to direct, orchestrate and guide the members in a non-coercive manner towards the attainment of the organization’s goals. Scholars have looked into the concept of leadership through the terror or the leadership that accomplishes its ends and gets a compliance by using violence and fear. 

In their article, Lee, Senior and Butler (2012) paint a picture of toxic leaders portraying them as workplace psychopaths who operate from an evil core. They refers to toxic leaders as leaders with hidden identities, motives, and an inner dark side. They, however, note that every individual has his or her dark side, and the toxic workplace environment is usually a function of the leader’s behaviors, the follower’s behaviors and different environmental contingencies. Their work continues to show that toxic leaders normally emerge either from the necessity, or they are cultivated in a toxic workplace (Lee, Senior & Butler, 2012).

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Work gets done in a boss and subordinate environment. The subordinates either affirm and support their leader or renounce their support and affirmation for the superior. Bennis (2013) pointed out a mistake often committed by the executive of an organization. They confuse a compliance with a commitment. A compliance means the attitude of accepting, when a person in authority directs for a change in an individual’s activities, position or ideas. A commitment, on the other hand, represents a strong motivation on the side of the subordinate to resist or adopt the directive from the superiors. If the individual supports the initiative that he has been directed to do, he or she will use the innovation to interpret, implement and work towards the success of the initiative. If the individual is not committed to the course, he or she will comply but find means of sabotaging the initiative.  

The research shows that over 30% of professionals had encountered behavior that contravened their organization’s policies, ethical standards or the law. Bennis (2013) observed that toxic leaders can find support and encouragement to engage in illicit behavior from subordinates and targets who do not know how to respond appropriately. He suggested that the lack of power, credibility, and autonomy limits the subordinate’s ways of responding, once they witness petty tyranny from their superiors. In his research, Lipman-Blumen discovered that there was not a shortage of toxic leaders in organizations. He found 55 leaders who include five women that acted in a toxic manner. Some of them dismally affected nations, while others affected the small teams they supervised by treating them in a psychologically and verbally abusive manner. 

Characteristics of Toxic Leaders

Toxic leaders use verbal abuse, profanity and public shaming to gain the compliance of subordinates (Miller, 2014). For instance, a participant in the study conducted regarding the manufacturing company attested that the manager had threatened that a letter was to be put in her file if she failed to comply with their demands. In this scenario, the manager made use of his positional power to coerce the employee. The manager was creating an oppressive environment. Toxic leaders have a poisonous effect in their workplaces. Such leaders often tell lies, but they have upon themselves an intrinsic character flaw that makes it acceptable for them to tell lies (Jha, 2015). In terms of the research conducted in the manufacturing company, the leaders represented the company’s policies to their employees in a way that contradicted with the general published corporate requirements and then coerced their employees to submit to them.

Deliberately toxic leaders intentionally harm others to better themselves at the expense of others. Unintentionally toxic leaders, on the other hand, harm others by their careless and reckless behaviors as well as their incompetence (Aritz & Walker, 2014). For instance, one respondent in the manufacturing company reported his supervisor to the organization’s leader for constantly belittling him. However, instead of solving the issue, the manager told the respondent that even previous managers had the same issue with the supervisor, but they were unable to control him. The perpetrator has never been punished. Toxic leaders usually focus only on their well-being and dominance while ignoring the needs of subordinates. Self-interest and selfishness lead the leaders to act without the integrity. This results in the suffering of the subordinates and the organization as a whole. Managers who do not show the support to their subordinates leave them hanging and create an atmosphere of distrust in the organization. When a manager does not stand by his employees, it creates an impression that he does not value them.

Toxic leaders always want to control all the components that run the organization. They blame other people for covering up their undoing. They only communicate the positive emotions and avoid distressing situational realities (Morrow, 2015). They also seek to maintain the image of the organization first. For instance, this is demonstrated when a high-ranking customer reports a conflict with an employee. A toxic manager will protect the image of the organization saying how efficient the employee is despite how many times such an incidence recurs. Toxic managers take the praise for the departmental success. Above this, they are disrespectful to those subordinates. They mainly focus on budgets and schedules and ignore the opportunities to receive a feedback and promote the creativity (Petriglieri & Stein, 2012). They are rigid and do not like the ideas of cooperation and information sharing. Ultimately toxic managers reduce the employees’ retention and destroy their morale. Petriglieri and Stein (2012) observe that for a leader to be successful, he or she must listen carefully in order to effectively cooperate with his or her subordinates.

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Effects of Toxic Leadership

Counterproductive Behavior

This is caused by the fact the targets of toxic leadership tend to take a revenge on the management of the organization for treating them wrongly. Soni and Slack (2012) observed that toxic leaders have no conscience. This makes them very ruthless and competitive. They are more brutally goal oriented than other leaders. Therefore, when they are discharging their leadership roles, they tend to bully their subordinates which bring about the conflict and resistance. This promotes a counter productivity. Saleh and Samir (2014) refer to this as an abusive supervision and classify it as the characteristic of a dysfunctional workplace. An abusive supervision creates a culture of resistance from the employees which has a negative effect on the organization’s performance (Buble, 2012).

Emotional Problems among the Employees

Toxic leaders lead to a high turnover, emotional exhaustion, stress and the impression of organizational injustice. In addition to these, the employees’ trust in management and ethics decrease as they see the toxic leaders get promoted by using lies, manipulation and taking credit for the efforts of other people (Hoch, 2013).

Stagnation and Inability to Compete

Soni and Slack (2012) focused on how different leadership styles affect an organization’s performance and ability to compete. They observed that toxic organizations which were mainly oriented towards the bureaucracy and control stayed in a state of the continuous crisis, and they were unable to achieve their goals. They also observed that the problem-solving processes in these organizations were driven by fear, and the internal communication practice was very poor.

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Poor Work Relationships

Toxic leadership brings about the rise of unpleasant subordinate and manager relationships (Goodell, 2014). This ultimately costs the organization time and energy while trying to resolve the emerging disputes and problematic subordinates. However, the research has shown that when subordinates report the abuse of their rights, they only get a temporary emotional content. However, subordinates have become used to this.

Employee Satisfaction

Swamy (2015) looked into the effects of different types of leadership on the employees’ satisfaction. Transformational leaders who exhibit an inspiring and charismatic personality have a higher employee satisfaction. The employee satisfaction promotes the employees’ engagement which has a positive effect on the overall organization’s performance. The employee engagement can be increased by reducing and addressing toxic leadership (Swamy, 2015)

Other effects include the impaired collaboration from external organizations and individuals, difficulty in attracting the brightest workforce and poor employees’ retention. Moreover, an organization with a toxic leader may be charged higher rates by other organizations due to the anticipated hardship in dealing with their members (Nazir &Akram, 2014). The behavior of a toxic leader usually goes on until certain conditions arise. The first case is when the target of the abuse terminates their relationship. The second condition is when the agent ends the relationship once it loses the usefulness, and the third scenario is when the agent decides to reform (Lee, Senior & Butler, 2012). However, the relationship between the agent and the target has an enduring effect, since the target stays in the relationship as long as he or she feels powerless to take the appropriate action. 

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Susceptible Followers

Followers are influenced differently by leaders. Scholars have described conformers as the type of followers who follow toxic leaders. Conformers are vulnerable, have a need for the safety and certainty, have a low self-esteem, and they are not willing to confront the toxic leaders. Other people who follow toxic leadership are colluders. Colluders are the people who share in the destructive leader’s values, ideas or have an ambition of gaining a promotion. A toxic leader may use the unmet needs of his or her subordinates so that they can impose him or her as the leader. Since they are conformers, they prefer to comply with the toxic leader, rather than face him. Conformers have the need to have an authoritarian figure. Their need for the safety often makes them seek for someone who is stronger than them, can take responsibilities and face a crisis on their behalf.

Conformers also want to have the sense of belonging. Therefore, once they are members of a group in an organization led by a toxic leader, they may be afraid to confront the toxic leader which can lead to the ejection. In such circumstances, individuals would rather stay in the group even under bad conditions than be lonely and ejected. Human beings can give up their individuality, beliefs and sometimes their integrity to warrant their social belonging (Hoch, 2013). Toxic leaders often exploit this weakness. Individuals who lack self-efficacy tend to follow toxic leaders. Self-efficacy is the ability of an individual to complete actions and handle events during the life. When an individual undermines his or her skills, they will tend to be passive in the organization and follow the toxic leader. Such individuals are also stressful and inefficient when faced with a difficult situation. Therefore, they let the toxic leader take all the responsibility and follow him or her to make their life easier.

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The locus of control is an individual’s belief that they can have an impact on the world that surrounds them. Employees who view themselves as victims and believe that they cannot have an influence on the environment will gravitate towards becoming followers. When such individuals are faced with the dilemma of toxic behavior, they think they have no option but to follow the toxic leader. Ambitious individuals support toxic leadership opportunistically. Petriglieri and Stein (2012) observed that ambitious individuals support toxic leaders, because they are aware that resisting them could jeopardize their career. They approve the toxic behavior for their advantage. Such advantages might come in a form of promotion, new office or vehicle. Another group that follows toxic leaders is those with congruent beliefs and values as the toxic leader. The ambitious follower might not share the beliefs and values of the toxic leader, but the colluder believes and stands by them.


Most leadership programs and authors often talk about how people can transform themselves into good leaders. However, a discussion about leadership while ignoring the concept of toxic leadership is a misconception of the real situation. Therefore, leadership is not only constituted of the good leaders. It is a mixture of those who have selfish desires and use the manipulation to reach them and those who genuinely want the welfare of the group. The first type leads to toxic leadership which contaminates the workplace environment and undermines the welfare of subordinates. It results in the reduced creativity, voluntary effort and lack of the internal competition.

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