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Toxic and Underperforming Leadership Creates a Negative Employee Experience. Here Are 3 Steps to Retrain Your Leaders.

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A toxic leader is someone that hasn’t learned the correct leadership style to maintain a successful team, damages the well-being of their employees, and fails to contribute to a positive culture. Unsurprisingly, these toxic leaders can deeply impact the employee experience. Here’s how to retrain them for the better.

More than almost anything else, the quality of a boss can make or break the employee experience. One survey found that 58% of workers would accept a lower salary if it meant working for a fantastic boss, for instance. Research like this underscores just how important recognizing and overcoming toxic and underperforming leadership is to the attraction, engagement, and retention of return-generating talent.

So, how exactly do you spot a toxic leader? To put it simply, a toxic leader is someone who hasn’t learned the correct leadership style to maintain a successful team, damages the well-being of their employees, and does not contribute to a positive culture.

You might also be wondering why great bosses are such a rare breed. For one, companies tend to promote strong individual contributors into management roles because it’s the most common advancement path in the corporate world. But great executors aren’t always great at managing others. Suddenly, they’re thrust into a role they weren’t trained for and are expected to build a culture their direct reports can (and will) model. So as new people move up the corporate ladder, they repeat the patterns of past managers, and the cycle of toxic and underperforming leadership continues — leaders drain company culture instead of adding to it, and they fail to optimize their teams for success through career and personal development.

You can’t afford to have this dysfunctional leadership in your company; after all, we’re seeing a mass exodus from the workforce. The “Great Resignation,” as it’s called, is one effect of toxic leadership: According to the Randstad study cited above, 60% of workers point to a bad boss as the reason they’ve quit or considered quitting, and replacing those employees won’t come cheap. To keep top talent and create a positive employee experience, it’s important to confront toxic and underperforming leadership head-on.

How to Address Toxic Leadership

Dealing with toxic leaders is a matter of cleaning house. Abusive behavior is never acceptable, and truly difficult leaders should be ousted from the company immediately. However, when you have a manager who generates good returns for your company’s bottom line and growth goals, it can be difficult to justify letting them go — even if their direct reports don’t feel supported.

Often, supervisors aren’t succeeding in their roles because they haven’t been set up for success. Consider that the average business course doesn’t teach students how to manage their future direct reports, and very few companies have robust training programs in place for their managers.

With that, how can you address toxic and underperforming leadership? The answer is behavior reform. Your managers will be able to do better for their direct supports when they know better — as long as they’re willing to change. Here are three steps you can take to retrain toxic and underperforming leaders in your organization:

  1. Address the elephant in the room.
    You’ll never fix the problem of poor management if you refuse to address it in the first place. Hold one-on-one conversations with supervisors about the problems you’re seeing on the management level. Make sure you come prepared with concrete, real-life examples. However, you’ll need to redact any names or details that might identify an individual to protect employees who raised or reported concerns.

    Even one conversation will help you get a feel for whether this person is open to change or if they need to be let go. During the course of the conversation, you might find that the manager also feels overwhelmed, so give them the opportunity to air any frustrations and concerns. Where does the issue lie from the manager’s perspective? And how can you ensure this person feels heard and seen so they can better support the needs of their employees?

  2. Give managers the resources they need.
    Once you’ve opened the lines of communication and have a good handle on the situation (i.e., knowing whether the leader is open to behavior changes), you need to provide better support. Remember: Your managers are probably flailing because they were promoted to the position without first being armed with the knowledge and skills they needed to be effective people managers.

    Start with more traditional training courses on foundational skills, such as verbal and nonverbal communication, conflict management, and career planning with direct reports. It’s also a great idea to implement a corporate mentorship program where effective senior managers can provide one-on-one support to managers who are new or struggling. Mentorship is a great way to ensure you’re developing good leadership habits that can be replicated across the company (reversing the cycle of toxic leadership I mentioned earlier). In addition, reverse mentorship — where a junior employee mentors a senior employee — can help managers see the perspectives of their direct reports and how their behavior affects the employee experience.

  3. Set expectations and hold managers accountable.
    The final step in this process is setting clear expectations and holding your managers accountable to them. Make sure the improvement goals are clear, measurable, and deadline-oriented. If you’ve put a corporate mentorship program in place, for example, have mentors check in on goal progress with mentees on a biweekly basis.

    It’s important to note that even if a manager doesn’t meet the expectations you’ve set, that doesn’t always mean you have to fire them. It might mean that this individual simply isn’t a good fit for people management. Perhaps the person would be better suited to a different role within the company that doesn’t require them to have direct reports. The end goal should be empowering your team — and getting the right people in the right seats is a major part of that.

Toxic and underperforming leadership has become endemic in the business world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Stop letting your managers languish, and start taking the steps needed to recognize and overcome the problem. In the process, you’ll reform struggling managers and create a positive employee experience.


Written by Janice Omadeke.

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Janice Omadeke
Janice Omadeke is CEO and founder of The Mentor Method, an enterprise platform helping Fortune 5000 companies — including Glassdoor, Deloitte, and Chegg — keep and develop diverse talent using the proven power of mentorship.


Janice Omadeke is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.