Three Signs of Toxic Leadership

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Leadership Development

Between “quiet quitting,” recession worries, and the suddenly uncertain fates of major tech companies like Netflix, Meta, and Twitter—there’s more talk than ever before about management and toxic leadership styles.

What makes a good manager? What are the key skills organizational leaders need? How can leaders balance long-term innovation and growth with immediate needs?

And what toxic leadership habits should we relegate to the dustbin once and for all?

It’s too much to tackle in one post alone.

So, in the spirit of getting the tough stuff out of the way, let’s start by taking a look three major signs of toxic leadership.


Crisis as a Management Style

Crisis is never a sustainable leadership style. Sure, it may get results in the short run, for example if your organization is undergoing an actual crisis like losing several core funders at once. But in the long term, leaning on crisis to motivate people gets old fast.

You’ve likely seen the dozens of breathless headlines about Elon Musk’s leadership at Twitter. In a short time, he’s managed to created an overarching sense of chaos at the organization. Staff have been laid off. Some have been fired. Those remaining have been told the company is at risk of bankruptcy. Staff now need to commit to being “hard core” or move on.

As the New York Times explains in a piece analyzing Musk’s management style across several companies:

Mr. Musk’s all-in commitment to a company is often inspirational, but can also turn toxic and engender a culture of fear and scapegoating, three former Tesla and SpaceX managers said.

Of course, Twitter is just the most headline-grabbing example of crisis-driven leadership. But we see this same throughout the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofits are perpetually scrambling for funding. Staff work long hours with low pay. And it seems we can never do enough to meet all the needs in our communities. As leaders, it’s easy to lean on this sense of crisis to motivate ourselves and others.

Yet operating in constant crisis mode has almost too many consequences to count: Burnout becomes the norm. Valuable team members start to leave. Workplace culture becomes toxic. Productivity goes down. It becomes harder to recruit great staff, board members, and volunteers.

If you find yourself operating in crisis mode more often than not, it’s worth taking a step back and reassessing. Why are you always in crisis and how is it affecting your team?

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Taking Great People for Granted

The nonprofit sector draws people with a passion for creating change. But far too often, leaders rely on that passion alone to motivate and reward their teams.

As Funding for Good has shared before:

The “under-qualified, under-engaged board” alongside the “over-worked, underpaid Executive Director” model is sadly a norm within the sector.

What does it look like to take great staff for granted? First, you’ll want to consider concrete factors like salary and benefits.

  • Is your organization paying within typical market range?
  • Are salaries equitable across factors like race and gender?
  • Does your benefits package provide staff with affordable access to medical care for themselves and their families?
  • Do you offer generous vacation and time off policies so that your team members can rest, reset, and spend time with loved ones?

Even well-compensated staff can become frustrated, disconnected, and ready to leave. That’s why it’s critical to also consider intangible workplace benefits, like whether team members feel valued.

  • Do staff at all levels receive challenging growth assignments?
  • Are team members’ insights considered during decision-making that affects their roles?
  • Are valuable contributions recognized?
  • Do staff have a reasonable workload or are they always online, even during vacations and holidays?

And perhaps the simplest of all: When your staff members do excellent work, do you tell them?


Erratic and Inconsistent Communication

Finally, if the headlines about Twitter show anything, it’s that erratic leadership and communication only exacerbate crises and undermine staff morale.

One example, as reported by The Verge, is how, within a two-week period, Twitter’s head of ad sales “resigned, then un-resigned, and now she’s reportedly been fired.” With decision-making whiplash, how can team members possibly keep up or feel committed to an organization’s success?

Fast Company also describes Elon Musk’s email communications to employees as “a masterclass in how not to communicate.” The reported issues include:

  • Lacking sincerity
  • Focusing only on crises
  • Changing organizational policies with no notice
  • Sending an email in the middle of the night (when staff should be offline and sleeping)

As leaders, we all face hard choices. At one point or another, we’ll inevitably need to change course when it comes to organizational policies or other important decisions. But how we share those decisions matters.

Being clear, respectful, and honest in our communications can make an enormous difference in how staff and other stakeholders respond to our message.


Interested in more leadership tips? Check out our Nonprofit Leadership Development Webinar Series: Leading with Intent.

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