Last week, our leadership team held our quarterly planning offsite meeting. Our facilitator always begins these sessions with a question that requires a certain level of vulnerability; this time they asked a painful one:

“Who was the worst boss you ever had, and why?”

As each member of our team shared their story, I was struck not only by the similarity of their experiences, but also by the deep wounds their worst bosses had left. These weren’t cases where someone had a manager who was simply inexperienced or ineffective; it was more personally damaging.

The common characteristics of these horrible bosses won’t surprise you:

  • They wanted all the credit for success and always blamed others for failure.
  • They micromanaged constantly.
  • They always had to be the smartest person in the room and rarely listened to others.
  • They expected employees to be on-call 24/7.
  • They regularly attacked people personally.

Selfishly, I am thankful that these toxic leaders chased several incredibly talented people out of these organizations and led them down the path to ours. However, the damage these types of managers cause to individuals and to their organizations will likely be felt for a long time.

Working for a toxic leader can feel like being held hostage. Many people in this situation are actively dissatisfied and would never choose to work for their leader again. However, it’s not always easy to just pick-up and leave in the short term. Every day of work can feel like a Sunday night in high school, where you dread the next day.

Far too many toxic leaders stay in their roles for too long, and this typically happens for two reasons.

The first reason is that the organization does not have enough psychological safety or evaluative processes that bring these issues to the surface. Organizational leaders have to create an environment where employees can raise these management issues to senior leadership; if everyone on a team is miserable working for their leader, someone at a higher level needs to know and care about the issue. A culture of fear is a surefire way to keep toxic leaders in place.

The second reason is that, in many cases, toxic leaders stay because they get great results. It’s much easier to justify getting rid of a bad manager who does not excel at their job. In contrast, the most dangerous form of a toxic leader is the one that achieves the desired outcomes, manages up well or shows charisma to the right people. I like to call these leaders brilliant jerks, and they are the ones that senior leaders have the hardest time addressing.

Leaders should beware, however: a brilliant jerk rarely is a team builder who makes the organization stronger. Instead, they achieve good outcomes to advance their own interests and often do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Many leaders struggle to look past the strong performance to see the underlying damage being done.

Regardless of the reason, organizations that keep toxic leaders around often pay in the long run. According to research by IntechOpen, toxic leadership has a disastrous effect on organizational productivity and health. The research found that toxic managers cause a 48 percent decrease in work effort, and a 38 percent decrease in quality of output, and may be responsible for as much as 73 percent of employee turnover. This was certainty true for the organizations that formerly employed some of our senior leadership team members.

This is the real cost of toxic leadership. Replacing even a single employee is costly; replacing the five to ten who report to a single toxic manager is exorbitant.

Great companies and leaders don’t tolerate toxic managers. Instead, they proactively create an environment where toxic management issues are brought to the surface, and they never allow strong job performance to excuse keeping brilliant jerks around.

Does your organization have a toxic leader or brilliant jerk? Do you have the psychological safety in place to ensure those people are held accountable?

There are two ways to find out.

Quote of The Week

“Nothing will kill a great employee faster than watching you tolerate a bad one.”


– Perry Belcher