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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Three Symptoms of Toxic Leadership and How to Get out of It

The Three Symptoms of Toxic Leadership and How to Get out of It

Key Takeaways

  •  Everyone has toxic traits, and they get amplified during stressful situations
  • There are three symptoms that frequently lead to toxic leadership: high stress, feelings of insecurity (including job insecurity), and emotional numbness
  • There are three key benefits that come with quitting to be a toxic leader: giving permission to others to be vulnerable and deal with their insecurities, building stronger relationships with the team and establishing trust and transparency, and leading other toxic leaders to be more conscientious and take action towards positive change
  • There are several things you can do to get out of being a toxic leader: be open and honest, notice triggers early on, regularly write down your feelings, show your vulnerability, and put your ego aside
  • Seek help to come out of toxic leadership to build stronger relationships, establish trust and transparency, and set the path for positive change in ourselves, our teams, and our work environments

Toxic leadership and its impact

None of us are born toxic leaders, but anyone can easily become one. I know this for a fact, as I was a toxic leader once and had to recognize and come out of it.

Toxic leaders, like me, were often known as the good kids growing up. We followed the rules. We tried our best. But the thing is, there is a very innocent-looking road that slowly leads one from being a sweet young person to one whose actions negatively affect those around them, whether that is their intention or not. We often forget that regardless of our intentions, it's the actual impact that matters.  It’s the feeling that we leave people with that they hold onto.

That seemingly innocent road looks exactly like the one we are all on right now, where we are in the middle of a pandemic, and in a state of high emotional stress. It’s isolating. It feels like you can’t get ahead no matter what you do. It’s a moment in time when we get caught up in survival, and when we are forced to focus more on how we behave, rather than who we are. 

I have spent the past eight years helping others understand that we are not born toxic leaders, but that our environments shape who we are. I lived that world of being toxic and thinking I was the good guy. Later, I realized there was no such thing as the “good” or “bad” guy, but that there was only one guy and we are all both good and bad. We all have dormant insecurities. They are triggered when there is a high state of stress and that leads to toxic leadership.

Anyone reading this article right now is a leader in his/her own rights. You may have been in a position of leadership in school, church, mosque, temple, government office, or even in your household. One way or the other, the moment you interact with people, you are definitely making decisions that will affect them. The kind of decisions you make determine the kind of leader you are.

In the past several year’s workplaces have started to feel the effects of “Toxic Leadership.” Toxic leaders at the workplace have made life unbearable for employees, and these employees repeat this behavior when they get to the position of authority or leadership themselves, creating a never-ending cycle. This trend is also leading to traumatic experiences at the workplace.

You know you are a toxic leader when you show one or more of the below traits:

  • You constantly compare yourself to others
  • Your self-worth is driven by your latest results
  • You cannot celebrate someone else’s success; it makes you jealous and angry because you feel you deserve that celebration
  • You are constantly in the fear of looking out for people who are your competition, and you find out ways to overtake them even if that way is unjust

Toxicity has eaten deep into the very fabric of what is standard in the workplace. Why is it okay for people to use swear words and hate on one another, but not okay to use words such as love and appreciation? Why has what is supposed to be the norm now considered or seen as being “out there”?

That's not right, and a change in this thought pattern is long overdue. Now is the time to educate everyone on the importance of speaking right, doing right, treating each other right in the workplace, and above all, being a nontoxic leader.

It’s time we stop being toxic leaders and take action.

Once I started studying and analyzing my own toxic traits, I was able to come out of it. And now, I help other successful leaders in tech do the same.

For example, I was once working with an engineering manager at a start-up company. She worked around the clock to provide everything for her team. She did sufficient training, was nice to everyone, and provided all the support she possibly could.

She approached me in August 2019 for help. She said despite slogging for two years for her team, she received really negative feedback, and had the worst performance reviews in a decade, and was overlooked for salary and promotions.

We then started identifying different things she was doing for the team, and I requested her to do the following:

  • Schedule 1:1 meetings with each team member and ask them to share open feedback about how she was doing
  • In the 1:1 meetings, I asked her to let the team members know that she is not perfect, wants to improve, and is there for the team (showing vulnerability)
  • Leave her ego aside, listen to the feedback with an open mind and let the other person talk for the majority of the meeting
  • Take notes for future reference in her notepad after getting permission from the team member
  • After she had these individual meetings, she found that:
  • Her team members felt like they were forced to attend trainings organized by her which they were not interested in 
  • She was not fun to work with because she was so focused on results, never had a smile on her face, did not socialize with the team, and did not celebrate or recognize individual accomplishments within the team
  • She was not showing up for team meetings as she prioritized other leadership meetings which would be more beneficial for her promotion
  • Her team members took the blame for all the mistakes that happened in the project, and she did not take ownership of any of them
  • She was taking credit for other people’s work in company-wide meetings
  • People who she thought liked her actually disliked her but, she just wasn’t aware of it

Based on the feedback, she took corrective measures to make a positive change and was eventually promoted to be the VP of engineering within eight months.

The three symptoms of toxic leadership

People aren’t generally toxic. A person isn’t a fully toxic human. But everyone has toxic traits, and they get amplified when they have three types of symptoms.

Being aware of these symptoms can not only prevent you from leading from a space of negativity, but can also help prevent those around you from the pain, as well.

Three Symptoms that lead to Toxic Leadership

Symptom 1 - Stress

The first symptom is one that starts in a high state of stress.

Anyone can be a toxic leader and it is amplified during stressful situations. Just think about it. When is a parent more likely to yell at their child, or when are any of us likely to exhibit changes in our behavior? It's during times of stress.

A pandemic is a breeding ground for stress. In fact, according to a survey titled “Stress in America 2020” conducted by the American Psychology Association, nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. And, 2 in 3 adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress throughout the pandemic. Many of these individuals have leadership roles, but how are they coping with the demands of work coupled with survival?

Unfortunately, I have dealt with this for quite some time, but it took forced awareness to have the ability to identify situations that could compel me to respond in a toxic manner that was neither healthy nor supportive. For example, there were instances where I made decisions fully knowing it could affect other people negatively, and later felt bad about it. Once I started recognizing toxic actions like these, I started to become aware of who I had become and what I was doing.

We all have to go through this at some point in our lives, right? Where we start to analyze our thoughts and actions, and figure out what makes us act in a certain way. 

What are those trigger events? Forcing yourself to recognize these patterns is what “forced awareness” is about.

“Thoughts are neutral; we label them as positive or negative.”

I grew up the youngest of two kids in a conservative middle-class family, in the southern part of India. At a young age, I started developing this inferiority complex, believing that I was not good enough.

I constantly compared myself to other overachievers around me.

All of this constant comparison to the high-performers around me, and getting rebuked for asking questions made me feel like an outcast. I developed social anxiety, fear of rejection, and shut myself out from other people. On the outside, I acted as if everything was normal, but inside, I was engulfed with frustration, anger, sadness, and confusion about my life and identity. I was going through low self-esteem, high self-doubt, and severe body image issues.

So, when I entered the workforce I took a vow that I would make people respect me.

In life, when you want to make people respect you, you may do the following:

  • Form these self-made expectations about yourself and try to work towards them
  • Try to earn as much fame and money as possible for what you do
  • Build credibility so that people notice you
  • Have a huge following on social media
  • Start saying YES to every opportunity that comes your way
  • Go out of your comfort zone and try to be the best in whatever you do
  • Work extremely hard

This is exactly what I did as well.

Life shapes itself based on things you say yes to and things you say no to.

And one of the side effects of saying yes to everything is you overwork yourself. This can go on for a long period of time, eventually leading to burnout. About 60% of the workforce in tech suffer from burnout at various levels. But there are different ways to get out of this vicious cycle, by following some productivity hacks like deep work, time-blocking, delegation, planning daily and weekly tasks, task prioritization, and meditation to make you reach your peak performance level. More information on ways to prevent burnout can be found in this article Becoming more efficient and productive in a distracted world.

But, for over a decade, I pushed myself so much that I went back to a place of anxiety, depression, and stress, which I once wanted to escape. And this gave rise to a lot of toxic habits and actions that I knew were detrimental to people’s lives, but I did it anyway because I wanted to succeed.

I would automatically tap into these toxic traits whenever I felt threatened or extremely stressed.

Ultimately, these toxic traits when repeated consistently over a period of time make us desensitized to our actions that are harming other people. 

Symptom 2 - Emotional Numbness

This is the next symptom that we need to look out for where our toxic traits start affecting other people around us and we become emotionally numb.

Research has found that people adopt emotional numbness as a way of life to protect themselves from further emotional or physical pain.

You are your actions, even during times of difficulty. Remember, toxic residue remains on your hands.

Growing up, I was always the underdog. People always told me what to do and I just followed. I did things that I did not want to do, but I did them anyway because I thought that it would help me live up to people’s expectations; people would notice me and reward me for my actions. But no, this did not happen. I constantly kept disappointing people, as I could never live up to their expectations.

Most of the time I knew some of my actions would be affecting other people, and when I questioned performing those actions, I got reprimanded, because where I come from in southern India, it is not popular or accepted to ask questions. You need to accept things as they are, due to pressure from family, culture, and society. We have this hierarchical structure of command and you get reprimanded if you challenge the status quo.

Also, from a young age, I noticed that if you are in power or in charge, then you can make people do anything you want to. Or at least that’s what I thought!

So, when I finally started leading teams, I felt I was in control, I was in charge and it was a boost to my ego. I decided that people were going to listen to me whether they liked it or not. Little did I know that my past experiences working with toxic leaders made me act and think like one. I had become a toxic leader.

This led to a series of actions that I started displaying over a period, such as taking credit for other people’s work, inserting myself into important conversations that would increase my credibility, focusing my efforts on things that would only progress my growth, and much more. It became a normal part of who I was. I was completely desensitized from them, although it was affecting other people and was detrimental to the workplace.

The main reason I was following all these questionable practices was that I was feeling insecure. Your insecurities are your worst enemy. They are like a tumor that grows bigger and bigger and starts affecting every living organism around it. You constantly don’t feel good and people around you start reflecting the same behavior as well.

Symptom 3 - the Space of Insecurity

Insecurity filters through the cracks and gets to us every now and again. We must be mindful of it whenever it rears its head.

So, this is the final symptom to look out for - the space of insecurity, especially job insecurity. Your insecurities are your greatest enemy.

A study titled "The Effects of Prolonged Job Insecurity on the Psychological Well-Being of Workers" conducted by Western Michigan University found a direct correlation between job insecurity and mental health.

Now more than ever, people are unsure of what will occur in the immediate future. This creates feelings of insecurity that increase the likelihood of one tapping into their toxic traits. 

I was highly insecure throughout my life because I had this constant fear of being ignored, which stems from my childhood. When growing up, no matter what I did, people used to ignore me and thought I could never be successful in life. People thought I could never hold a job.

So, when I started leading teams and was in a position of authority, I made sure that this would never happen again. People would always notice me, and I would always be in the spotlight. I had a hunger for recognition; the willingness to do “anything” to seemingly succeed. For example, I used to make sure all critical tasks had my name associated to it so that when it was successfully completed, I would get recognition.

But the reality is, I was highly insecure about myself and my job. I was in a constant state of fear that everyone was noticing every step I took. The reality is that no one cares what you do, they see only the actions and results.

So, when you start noticing patterns where you:

  • Are becoming defensive
  • Are not receptive to feedback
  • Start micromanaging
  • Always want to have the final word, and
  • Want to hog the limelight whenever even a remote opportunity opens up

Then you are highly insecure and it is time to take action.

How can toxic leaders change?

Toxic leaders at the workplace have made life unbearable for employees. These employees, when they get to a position of authority or leadership, continue in this never-ending circle. This has to stop!

I am living proof that fame and credibility can still make you feel isolated and empty. This propels you to do things that can be detrimental to others. Being a toxic leader is unacceptable, but we don’t have to remain that way. There are things we all can do to hold toxic leaders accountable, so they can take responsibility for their actions and change them. 

Ultimately, we need to start feeling empathy for toxic leaders. Empathy does not excuse behavior, but rather can help us give permission for a toxic leader to step up and acknowledge their toxicity. We all have toxic traits, but they show up differently in each of us. 

One challenge is that we’re living in a “cancel culture” society. We see instances of people messing up, being toxic, and getting barred from society because of it. Though they are doing unacceptable things, toxic leaders also have a lot of insecurities and may be afraid of being canceled if they admit to their mistakes. This causes the toxicity to continue unabated. 

Yet, when we’re able to see the person behind the actions and bring their behavior to the their attention, we can:

  • Give them permission to be vulnerable and deal with their insecurities
  • Make other toxic leaders take action towards positive change

For example, when I initially got promoted into a leadership role, I thought I had to take the lead in everything. So, I started micromanaging people and expected to be included in every communication related to the project. After several months of doing this, I started to miss deadlines on critical tasks and was finding it hard to manage my time.

One day when I was leaving the office, one of my direct reports started walking along with me and said he had been noticing how stressed I was about everything. He asked me if he could give me some feedback, if I did not mind. Fortunately, I put my ego aside and said yes.

He was able to point out with examples different things I had been doing which made me a micromanager, and how I was losing respect from my team. To this day, that one piece of feedback remained the most pivotal for me in quitting to be a toxic leader.

If you are leading teams and show any of the symptoms I have mentioned in this article, recognize that to err is human, and it is never too late to make a change. You can rebuild trust after it is broken, by owning up to your actions, and showing vulnerability and the courage to make a change.

Here are things you can do right now to get out of being a toxic leader:

  • Be open and honest about your problems; do not bury them as this leads to severe consequences
  • Notice patterns and triggers early on
  • Regularly write down your feelings, find patterns and address them
  • Open up to a trusted partner or friend about what you are going through; everyone needs help
  • Shift your mindset away from fame, money & power to serving and impacting people in a positive way
  • Show your vulnerability to make people understand that you are human
  • Put your ego aside; our ego is the enemy

It is urgent we humanize toxic leadership traits so we can more easily recognize them and seek the help we need. When we do so, we build stronger relationships, establish trust and transparency, and set the path for positive change in ourselves, our teams, and our work environments.

About the Author

Raj Subrameyer is a tech career strategist focusing on helping people to land their dream job and become successful leaders. He is passionate about guiding professionals to maximize their opportunities and discover their zone of genius. He has given multiple TEDx talks and is a sought-after speaker at various conferences and has been featured in numerous TV news channels, podcasts and publications, including CBS, FOX, NPR, NBC, Entrepreneur, CEOWorld Magazine, Authority Magazine, Career Addict, Thrive Global, Addicted2Success and The Good Men Project. His areas of expertise include career advancement, leadership, motivation, productivity and entrepreneurship. In his spare time, he loves traveling and enjoying craft beer. You can find more info about how he serves people through his website -


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