The world is a pretty complex place, and leading in complex environments requires competence. There are no simple answers. Leaders are required to invest in and develop others and exercise judgment. Leaders must have empathy, experience, and wisdom.

The ability to have both self-awareness and an understanding of one’s impact on others is a competency of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is leading one’s self with an awareness of those he or she leads.

As Dan Goleman writes in Primal Leadership, emotional intelligence is our aptitude for:

  • Recognizing our own feelings and those of others
  • Motivating ourselves
  • Managing emotions effectively in ourselves and those around us to include those we lead

An emotional competence is a learned capability based on emotional intelligence that contributes to effective performance in a leadership position (or any position for that matter).

A lack of emotional intelligence and therefore emotional competency can lead to toxic behavior.

One reason toxic leaders burn down organizations is they do not realize the negative impact they have on others and the organizations they lead. Employee engagement, productivity, and retention within a company are largely driven by people leadership. When people leave organizations, they are leaving relationships. As Victor Lipman writes in this article, “People leave managers, not companies.” 

Every interaction a manager has with one of their direct reports has a positive or negative impact. How managers lead and influence others matters. A good way to think of this is “How are my direct reports experiencing me?” Anyone who cannot lead himself or herself has no business leading others, because the results of their impact will most likely be negative.

Toxic behavior also extends to employees in the workplace.

In their working paper on toxic workers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor define a toxic worker “ as a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including its property or people.” This type of behavior can be damaging to an organization both from a fiscal and human capital perspective.   From a leadership perspective an organizations people are it biggest competitive advantage.

Toxic workers seem to induce others to be toxic.

In facts, evidence suggests that a toxic worker can have more impact on performance than a “superstar.” It may be that spending more time limiting negative impacts on an organization might improve everyone’s outcome to a greater extent than only focusing on increasing positive impacts. Tying back to leadership, it is in the best interests of the organization from both a human capital perspective and financial perspective to invest in the development of leaders and employees in order to build a culture of leadership aligned with the organizations values. If an organization values leaders and employees respecting each other then that value should be modeled by leaders. When employees see this behavior modeled by the organizations leaders they will in turn practice these behaviors themselves, and this will eventually impact the culture.

Values drive behaviors, which drives culture.

This is not easy work. It takes dedication, and leaders and employees willing to hold themselves and each other accountable for their behavior.  The leadership challenge of “What to do next with the toxic employee” can be a test of the will of organizational leaders to maintain and build a culture free of toxicity.

While in certain cases the right choice may be managing out the toxicity, let’s focus on the benefits of coaching and leadership development. What can you do with a leader who is lacking emotional intelligence? Give them feedback.

  • If the individual is a peer, then exercise peer leadership and attempt to influence their behavior in a positive way.
  • If the person is a superior, then “lead up” and attempt to influence higher in a positive way.
  • For organizational leaders, if the person is a subordinate leader then they have a duty to attempt to develop them and change their behavior.

How do you develop a toxic leader and make them “less toxic”?

It is not easy, but it can be done. First, they have to want to change. They need to be presented data showing they are toxic so they can “see” themselves. Second, once they have greater awareness of themselves and the negative impact of their behavior, they can be coached to learn and develop the emotional intelligence capabilities of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill.

The article “Leadership That Gets Results” by Daniel Goleman offers a primer on emotional intelligence. The chart below is from the article.Magnificent - Normal Screen


Managing our behavior starts with self-awareness.

If we do not have self-awareness we cannot self-regulate. As mentioned previously, self-awareness can be gained through feedback on how our behavior impacts others. Once we have self-awareness we can learn to self-manage and regulate our behavior to prevent it from becoming destructive and having a negative impact on others around us. Without self-awareness we cannot learn and manage the other emotional intelligence capabilities, each with its specific competencies.

There are numerous tools that can help individuals gain self-awareness. One that I like to use is the ESCI 360 which gathers data on 12 emotional intelligence competencies from individuals the person being assessed selects. In my work with leadership clients this assessment does a great job of capturing the behaviors and allows leadership coaches to assess and develop an organizations leaders to be more effective in their interactions with the members of the organization.

Organizations can do a better job of detecting toxic leaders before they burn down the place and cause everyone else to run for the exits and leave due to the negative climate. With more emphasis on leader development methods such as coaching and mentoring, toxic leaders can be identified earlier and developed through a learning and change process to be more emotionally competent leaders. This will create a positive—rather than negative—ripple effect through the entire workforce.