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How To Combat Toxic Leadership

20 November 2023

MArgot Faraci

Story by
Margot Faraci Senior leader and international leadership coach

Close-up Of Businessperson Quarreling To Young Businesswoman At Desk

Senior leader and international leadership coach, Margot Faraci, discusses the impact of toxic leadership, and how to combat fearful leaders in the workplace.

In my two decades working in fast paced corporate environments I have seen my fair share of fearful leaders and the impact that this can have on the workplace. What became clear to me is that toxic leadership is often driven by a leader’s fear and ultimately reduces productivity.

My current mission to uncover the unconscious fear that is motivating corporate leaders around the world and my new global research reveals fearful leaders are costing UK businesses £2.2bn in productivity, and approximately £33bn globally across the UK, USA, and Australia.

Mostly, a fearful leader isn’t conscious that they’re leading with fear – they’re doing what they’ve always done, they’re leading the way they’ve been led and they don’t know any other way. The situation is as harmful for them as it is for the people they’re leading.

The antidote to fear is love

Now, people think of love as a romantic connection between two people. It is, but it’s more. Love is the most powerful force we have in humanity: consider a parent comforting a child, or the times when you have felt most free and at ease with your friends or family. In workplaces we describe this more clinically: we call it psychological safety, and it’s the single biggest predictor of performance. It’s the feeling that we can take risks with each other, trusting that each of us is acting in good faith.

You can’t manufacture that in someone else. But you can take action on yourself.

So, if you’re experiencing toxic leadership, the first thing to do is take a loving mindset to it.

How do you find love in the workplace?

Most importantly, love yourself enough to know that you don’t have to put up with it, and that you deserve better. Then, take a compassionate and respectful intention to the leader who is toxic: they’re acting from fear, probably unconsciously, and probably don’t know another way to be.

Decide to set some boundaries

Taking a loving approach to yourself means deciding how you want to be treated. I once had a boss – a love leader – who told me “every time you allow someone to walk all over you, you’re giving them permission to do it again.” Now, it’s not easy standing up to toxic leadership, and if it were easy, there’d be no such thing as toxic leadership! But, no one will set boundaries for you: you have to be your own boundary cop. So, decide: what’s the boundary you want to set and how do you want to set it? Perhaps you’ve been in a meeting and your boss has shamed you in front of your peers? Perhaps your leader has isolated from an opportunity or a team? It won’t do any good to throw your hands in the air and say it’s all bad: choose a situation, be specific.

And you won’t effect change if you go to your leader trying to undermine them, catch them out or persecute them. Love yourself enough to show up with courage and clarity. Leave the frustration and anger for the weekend debriefs with your friends.

You set boundaries by being brave and clear. At the outset, state your highest intention, saying what you care about: perhaps “I’ve come to talk to you because I care about our business and doing well…” What boss would object to that?

Be clear on your experience and ask your leader for their intention: “You told me off in front of the team. I felt ashamed and like I don’t belong. Did you mean to do that? I’m telling you because I think you’d care about that.” I’ve done this. It’s hard. And with the right leaders, it works.

Many times, a leader won’t actually realise the impact they’re having. They might be quite confronted by what you’re saying, in which case you’ll need to give them some time to respond, maybe leave it with them overnight.

In some – very few – cases, a leader won’t care. That’s when there’s not much you can do about a toxic workplace except look after each other and try to learn as much as possible. Then, when it becomes too much, take the lessons, vow never to be like that leader and start looking around for a new job, with a loving environment.

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