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Spotted: 3 Unmistakable Signs of Toxic Leadership

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Not all traits are created equal. In fact, some traits can seem positive at first or be highly valued while an employee is working as part of a lower-level team. However, they may slowly reveal themselves to be toxic when that same person is placed in a position of leadership. The experts at Hogan Assessments, the global leader in workplace personality assessment and leadership consulting, have identified three key traits to keep an eye on to avoid dealing with a toxic leadership situation.

Trait 1: Cautious

Caution can seem like a good trait for a manager to possess, as it is assumed that these leaders will be measured and rational. But this is not always the case, and the trait can be far more limiting than beneficial. Cautious leaders can be toxic, as their fear of making mistakes can bring projects and companies to a standstill. “These kinds of leaders tend to operate with a ‘worst-case scenario’ mentality, which makes them dwell on the fact that nothing is certain. This in turn creates a reluctance in cautious leaders to try new things and struggle to make decisions,” explained Dr Ryne Sherman, chief science officer and co-host of The Science of Personality Podcast.

This inability to commit to a decision can bring projects to a halt and result in a complete lack of leadership or aimless managers. This negatively affects their subordinates, as their teams will then learn to work around to complete their daily tasks, suffering from a lack of management as a result. Alternatively, this indecision or lack of agency could potentially rub off on their team, leading the entire department to feel directionless and struggle to reach their goals.

Trait 2: Imaginative

“Imaginative people are highly creative, and they love to engage in brainstorming sessions, which, as an employee, can be positive as it means there is always a platform provided to you by your managers for your ideas and feelings to be heard. However, as leaders, they can become easily bored by daily tasks and activities, which can be counterproductive to the success of a business,” observed Dr Sherman. Imaginative leaders are easily distracted by their own thoughts and have the potential to get off-task, resulting in a more chaotic and unorganised approach to leadership, which may isolate or hinder employees working under them who thrive off a more structured approach to their work.

Their leadership style has the potential to turn toxic, as they tend to overcomplicate problems and relish the opportunity to find unconventional or new ways to approach issues. Unfortunately, not every problem requires a leader to rewrite the book, and their insistence on ingenuity and creativity can result in their employees viewing them as unfocused and impractical leaders, which can undermine their authority, further adding to the chaos of their management style.

Trait 3: Bold 

Bold leaders can be inspiring, courageous, and confident. Employees can indeed learn a lot from them and their rise to the top of their organisations, but they can also be a challenge to work for and under. “Bold leaders refuse to acknowledge their faults and mistakes or take accountability for their failures for fear of losing face. Believing they are infallible, or at least insistent that they be portrayed as such, they will often shift the blame for any problems onto their teams. This can lead to a lack of trust within a team structure and result in resentment among lower members of the organisation, creating a toxic work environment,” noted Dr Sherman.

While bold leaders sometimes have a lack of accountability, they may also take any opportunity to talk themselves up, even going as far as taking credit for any team achievements regardless of the level of their involvement. These types of leaders are often bad at acknowledging the hard work of their employees as well, choosing instead to highlight their own achievements to their superiors. This lack of team solidarity, as well as an absence of encouragement, can be demoralising for a team and lead to resentment among co-workers, as well as a lack of drive or motivation within the employees they lead.

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