Remember Summer of 2022 when attrition was at an all-time high? You couldn’t hire fast enough, and more than 40% of your workforce seriously considered quitting within the next six months. It was hard to keep up with all the farewell messages to colleagues that required writing.
Since then, the corporate hiring landscape has changed dramatically with widespread hiring freezes and layoffs across multiple industries. One thing hasn’t changed though.
Remember those employees you were afraid to lose? Many still want a new job to escape an unhealthy work environment or toxic management. Only now, they’re trapped in a situation they once considered untenable, but must endure until the workforce cycle swings back in their favor.
Despite the Great Resignation in our rearview mirror, employers should continue to examine why their people wanted to leave in the first place, and what they can do to improve the employee experience for those whose options have dried up. According to MIT Sloan, toxic workplace culture was the leading cause of employee attrition—levels reaching up to 30% in some industries. A toxic culture was 10x more powerful a predictor of turnover than compensation.
Here’s the thing: The same toxic culture driving mass employee exodus then, remains today; only now it drives disengagement.
Global workforce engagement in 2022 was just 21%, costing the global economy an estimated $7.8 trillion. This is according to Gallup’s 2022 State of Global Workplace Report.
This cycle of toxic culture, disengagement, and turnover doesn’t just impact the global economy. Employees feel this cycle on a very personal level in the form of burnout, anxiety, worry, and diminished mental health. 44% of global employees reported their workplace causes them significant daily stress. Toxic culture drains employers and employees alike in a zero-sum game.
What is Toxic Workplace Culture?
You know it when you feel it. MIT Sloan identifies five toxic workplace culture traits as disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. Here’s how these traits play out through workplace behaviors:
Not showing team members courtesy or dignity as fellow humans. Responding rudely, abruptly, or dismissively to new ideas, or otherwise breaking down a person’s self-esteem.
Creating an environment that marginalizes a group of employees, particularly women and people of color. These people feel like they’re outside looking in at those who were invited (or born) to sit at the table where big decisions are made.
Besides feeling left out these people may experience getting singled out for negative reasons, or that managers specifically lack empathy with barriers in their work or personal life.
3. Unethical Behavior
This manifests in teams who lie to each other, steal from the company (or eat their coworkers' food out of the fridge), and cut corners. Unethical behavior can also include pinning blame on a coworker or otherwise misrepresenting the cause and outcome of suboptimal results.
4. Cutthroat Culture
Every person for themselves. A toxic work environment where you cannot rely on teammates or leaders for help in accomplishing shared goals. Everything is a competition with clear winners and losers. Red flags include a disregard for employees’ work-life balance.
Cutthroat culture often manifests as an environment where exhaustion and burnout are looked upon favorably and considered signs of high performance. We only need to look at recent data around quiet quitting to understand the prevalence of this, and why this is harmful to employees.
Leaders who use their positions of power to belittle, abuse, harass, or otherwise take advantage of those who report to them. This includes leaders who allow abusive behavior to continue unaddressed within their ranks. Abuse does not have to be explicit or verbal. It can take the form of manipulation behavior, like gaslighting — making the employee continuously question their own abilities and security.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen these five traits and behaviors play out by toxic managers over and over. I’m by far not alone in this experience; 76% of workers currently have or previously had a toxic boss. People have described this type of workplace behavior as soul-crushing. As employees, we know toxic leadership when we feel it day after day.
According to Gallup, toxic managers play a part in creating burnout in their teams with a lack of support and unfair treatment. Managers account for 70% of employee engagement, and by extension, disengagement.
We know employees leave toxic cultures, and that managers play outsized roles in driving organizational culture. So how do we break this cycle? The answer is identifying and dealing with toxic managers.
Here are the three overarching types of toxic managers, and typical behaviors you can use to identify them.
The Three Types of Toxic Managers
The most toxic managers I’ve come across during my career fall into one of three buckets: the Ghost, the Child, and the Tyrant.
A leader I categorize as a Ghost is physically or emotionally absent when you need them most. Their laissez-faire style may seem alright at first, but when employees need an advocate, the Ghost is nowhere to be found.
One senior leader came to our office after a tumultuous two years of failed leadership. He was generally pleasant but did not engage with or support his direct reports when we needed a compassionate, curious, and inspiring leader. He felt more like an inattentive babysitter than a leader.
Although it is easy to condone this behavior as non-interventionist, it is also not constructive leadership. The pitfall of working under a Ghost is that no one champions your career growth or cares much about your employee experience.
The Child lacks appropriate boundaries and can be incompetent in their role. This type of toxic boss makes their team wonder why they were given responsibility over them and their work output given their lack of hard and/or soft skills.They take credit for their team’s work, create cliques, and show favoritism.
I worked a retail job during winter and summer breaks through college. Closing one night right before Christmas, the store looked like multiple tornadoes had hit. Sweaters, scarves, and sequins everywhere! We were looking at hours of folding and sorting; holiday closing could easily go past midnight. Instead of helping the team, our store manager stood in the back gossiping with his favorite employee, ensuring the rest of us were stuck there until 2 AM.
The Child misunderstands leadership as a me-and-them arrangement. Although a profound leadership skill is knowing when to get out of your team’s way, it is also necessary to work as a contributing member when needed.
This type of toxic leader is the micromanaging bully who makes employees want to quit on the spot.
These managers inflict real trauma, abuse, and mental health challenges on their teams. The Tyrant can be especially hard on workers who have softer personality traits and don’t readily engage in direct confrontation, making them an easy target.
While on a two-year tour overseas, I encountered one of the worst leaders I’ve ever had. She had a vice grip on the team and had isolated us from our colleagues at the Embassy and from our support system back home in DC.
My coworkers and I had a stoplight system to warn each other of her mood each day. Green days were very rare. Yellow days were the baseline; we were careful to avoid saying or doing anything to set her over the edge. Red days meant we were all going to cry at some point.
Her toxic behaviors meant the team’s morale, productivity, and mental health were in the gutter. While back home on Christmas vacation six months into that tour, I stopped by the office to warn my chain of command about the situation, resulting in her ultimate recall.
The Tyrant’s abusive behavior may stem from their own experience as junior employees, or from a deeper sense of anguish. The important thing to note is that no form of verbal, emotional, physical, discriminatory, or sexual abuse from a leader is tolerable or excusable.
These toxic management archetypes all struggle to connect with their teams, or they avoid connecting altogether. Bear in mind no one thinks of themselves as a toxic person. These bosses may even consider themselves to be great leaders, possessing no self-awareness of the unhappiness or harm they inflict.
You can think of these managers in terms of Karen Horney’s research on neurotic social behavior.
- The Ghost moves away from employees in withdrawal.
- The Child moves towards their team seeking admiration and prestige.
- The Tyrant moves against their team in aggression and the need for power and control.
To varying degrees, they all create a toxic working environment for their teams. This in turn drives low employee engagement and attrition.
How to Identify Toxic Managers in Your Organization
Let me ask you this: Do you have organizational initiatives in place to collect employee pulse data? If you do, are you using that data to identify and address your team’s biggest pain points?
The best way to identify toxic leaders is to listen to, and believe, feedback from your employees. When done right, an employee pulse strategy will yield insights into what they love about their jobs, and what they wish they could change.
To effectively gather this information, a software tool is ideal. Employee engagement software allows for gathering quick pulse data, as well as more comprehensive employee engagement surveys. Additionally, it measures key employee engagement metrics that you can track for ongoing insight.
Creating Your Employee Pulse Strategy
Your employee pulse strategy should consist of multiple inputs throughout the year, and be segmentable by leader or team.
Think of it as a funnel that starts big at the top, collecting input from your entire workforce in small bits (e.g., pulse surveys), and works its way down into smaller segments of your organization — gathering more in-depth and contextualized feedback (e.g., focus groups). You can use this data to identify and intervene with leadership issues, unhealthy aspects of the organization’s culture, and bad manager behavior.
This data should be enough to uncover and target toxic managers with the coaching they need to lead their teams with more emotional intelligence.
What funnel of questions can you use to identify the Ghost, Child, and Tyrant managers in your organization?
Start with an annual employee experience survey that asks all employees to rate feedback on a scale based on broad questions such as:
- How satisfied are you with your manager?
- My manager helps me feel included at work.
- My manager supports my career development.
Once you have a full picture of how employees feel about their managers, you can dig deeper by conducting focus groups with the lowest-performing teams to understand the root cause of the initial pulse data. Is it a wider culture issue, trouble settling after an organizational change, or are there leaders who create a toxic work environment for their direct reports?
There are a few other great input mechanisms to identify toxic managers.
- Watch your employee retention and turnaround metrics, as well as trends around absenteeism. In other words, how are your employees talking with their feet?
- Compare attrition data across teams.
- Look at exit interviews.
- Identify leaders with more than their fair share of employee relations cases.
You Found Toxic Leaders. Now What?
Are your managers clear not just on their team’s business goals, but also on what is expected of them as people leaders? The challenge with people leaders is that they usually didn’t start their careers as people leaders.
They didn’t earn a degree in people management or project management for that matter, therefore they likely never received formal training to be a good boss.
The usual route to management is by demonstrating excellence in a functional skill and being elevated to lead a team of your former peers. This more often than not happens without any additional skills development to account for an expanded role or the responsibility to care for the development and success of other human beings.
Create a Culture of Continuous Learning
Organizations should invest in a continuous culture of learning. Not just for functional skills needed for individual contributors to deliver whatever product or service your company builds, but also for its leadership. Organizations must also invest in the current and future managers and leaders of their teams.
In practical terms, this requires regular manager learning sessions with HR business partners, subject matter experts, and guest speakers on topics that align with the rhythm of your business (e.g., annual review, onboarding, and promotions). This manager learning should also cover topics around the functional skills of leading people — effective employee recognition, how to hold regular one-on-ones, how to give constructive feedback, how to conduct career planning conversations, and coaching for performance.
The result of this is institutional knowledge around “This is what leadership and healthy work look like in our organization”, as well as benchmarks leaders can use to gauge their management abilities
For the tenured or more senior leaders your data and employee input have identified as toxic, organizations can provide internal or external coaches to help hold these leaders accountable for driving a healthy employee experience.
Employees rely on HR to take necessary action to remove toxic leaders who cannot (or will not) be coached. The equation we face is the comfort of the powerful few versus the well-being and psychological safety of the many. Choose the many. Break the cycle.
Workers around the world, who just six months ago were actively searching for a new role in order to escape a toxic workplace or manager, now find themselves facing stagnant workplace mobility.
Toxic managers like the Ghost, Child, and Tyrant are responsible for, if not directly the cause of, the majority of that toxic workplace culture. The good news is that organizations can take steps to identify these toxic leaders and provide them with the skills, training, and resources to adjust their management styles. This learning makes it possible to improve the employee experience for their teams.
Imagine how much more productive, innovative, and profitable companies could be if organizations invested in learning and development for managers the way they invest in other areas of the business.