Feature

The poisoned chalice


Is HR responsible for tackling toxic leaders?

Words by Sophie Parrott | Design by Theo Griffin

Words by Sophie Parrott


Design by Theo Griffin

“True leaders always practice the three R’s: Respect for self, Respect for others, Responsibility for all their actions,” an anonymous leader once penned sagely. And in many respects, this motto is true. Take Anna Wintour for example. The Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue is fabled for her chilling leadership style that eventually merited the epithet ‘Nuclear Wintour’. And it wasn’t long before the editor’s toxic leadership style was publicly outed. Her short-serving assistant, Lauren Weisberger, wrote the well-known roman-à-clef The Devil Wears Prada which was reportedly based on her 11-month stint working under Wintour’s governance. However, a 2016 interview with thecut.com revealed that Wintour showed little remorse for her noxious leadership style. “If my style is too direct for some, maybe they should toughen up a bit,” she said. So, not exactly a shining example of good leadership.

So, What is toxic?

The concept of toxic leadership was first derived in the military after negative headship styles were found to be punitive. And, recent figures suggest that 20% of US Army soldiers embody toxic leadership styles. The notion of toxic leadership is defined as a “combination of self-centred attitudes, motivations, and behaviours that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organisation, and mission performance.” Additionally, toxic leaders are said to obtain a severe lack of concern for others. These individuals are often guilty of operating with a pompous perception of self-worth. So how many different types of toxic leadership are there?

Professor Christine Naschberger, who specialises in HR management, tells HR Grapevine that there is not just one type of toxic leadership. She explains that bullying is often an example of destructive leadership, as well as leaders who are aggressive and “attack co-workers in a physical as well as verbal”. This also encompasses corrupt leaders engaging in unethical practices. Naschberger adds that narcissistic leaders – who have too much power and may suffer from paranoia – are another extremely toxic leadership mode. While it seems that toxic leaders can have numerous different traits, does this mean that they are easy to spot?

Naschberger adds that toxic leaders are often difficult to spot in the beginning which is why she encourages recruiters and hiring managers to contact former employers for a character reference. She says that one pressing indicator of toxic leadership is high turnover rates and soaring absenteeism levels within their previous departments.

However, Frances Merrylees, HR Director at ITV, says filtering out toxic leaders in the hiring process is easier said than done. This is because toxic leaders are often able to positively manipulate and manage their persona in front of others and their toxic traits can easily go undetected in an initial interview. “Toxic leaders get to a position of leadership because they are good at that and they can deliver but at the cost of others,” she tells HR Grapevine. Despite this, Merrylees says that there are ways of detecting toxic leadership in the early stages by ensuring that there is a rigorous recruitment process. The HR lead encourages hiring managers to vet candidate shortlists by ensuring that they meet various members of the team. That way, colleagues can discuss and share their differing perspectives of the candidate in question to eliminate any poor hiring decisions.

“Alongside line managers, HR has a role to play to ensure that there is a healthy environment for individuals to flourish and develop in, and also a safe environment that people feel they can be themselves at work.” And, Merrylees explains that HR can promote this safe working environment by ensuring that the correct policies are inaugurated in the first place, to deter toxic leadership from creeping into an organisation. But is it solely HR’s responsibility to deal with toxic leadership figures?

Jonathan Parsons, HR Director at Triumph Motorcycles, explains that dealing with toxic leadership is a shared responsibility with the rest of the executive team. “I certainly think that if the behaviour of an individual is a blind spot for an organisation then it’s critical for an HR Director to have the courage to put their hand up, either to the CEO or to a colleague,” he says. Due to the often chameleon-like nature of toxic leaders, Parsons explains that there are many different solutions open to a HR Director. “It is fundamentally dependent upon whether the executive is emotionally aware enough to acknowledge some of the problems with their leadership style. If a leader is able to acknowledge the problem, then I think you stand a chance of being able to help them through coaching” he adds. Parsons additionally points towards 360-degree feedback tools as a way for colleagues to voice how they feel affected by an individual’s toxic leadership style. But, ultimately, he explains that HR will need to adapt their solution according to the severity of the issue and its impact on the performance of the organisation.

So, the key takeaway for HR here is to prevent toxic leaders from infiltrating the organisation in the first place. Not only will this avoid poor hires, it will greatly benefit employee engagement and company culture.


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