This week, (and it’s only Thursday afternoon), I was asked this question four (4) times: “Which is worse, toxic leadership or passive leadership?”
These two styles seem to be popping up frequently these days. I am curious as to why and you must be also. That is why you are reading this article, right?
Are you curious because you are struggling to identify the leadership that surrounds you?
Or, did you receive feedback about your own leadership style?
Whatever it is, I am going to reveal all that you need to know to make your own conclusion.
Toxic Leadership Or Passive Leadership – Which Is Worse?
Neither one is worse, toxic leadership or passive leadership, in my experience. While toxic leaders are boastful and arrogant, they also provide no help to others. This is the connecting similarity between the two. Passive leaders also do nothing to help others. Passive leaders manage by exception. They avoid taking action until things have reached crisis proportions. Even then, may choose to walk away and pass on taking any action to others, usually their Direct Reports.
Both toxic and passive leaders are destructive – to themselves, their peers, Direct Reports and their organisations. In essence, both styles result in leaders failing to inform others of the decisions that have been taken. They provide little or no clarity when it comes to important matters.
Then, when others do not understand them, they act surprised and act incongruently. Their behaviours become frustrated, defensive and biased towards themselves.
Even though they may know that their behaviours have caused the problems at hand, they never admit it. Feedback becomes their enemy as they do not ask for it or dismiss it when it is given.
Let’s explore each leadership style in more detail.
What Is Toxic Leadership?
Unlike the carefully placed signage on the gates above, toxic leadership is deceiving. The gates to the organisation may not even have locks and chains. They will probably look very inviting with green, well-manicured grass.
You start by thinking that the grass is much greener than the one you are currently walking on. That means things muct be much better.
You jump across, push the welcoming gates open and step proudly inside. Things may look and feel good for a few days, even weeks. Then, slowly, you begin to realise that things are not what you perceived them to be.
These signs start to emerge:
- Your feedback is not invited or not welcomed.
- The leader is always right. It is never their fault.
- The emphasis is placed on roles and where you sit in the organisation’s pecking order.
- They give a lot of preferential treatment to people they like, their friends and those that they favour, often for unknown reasons.
- Toxic leaders micro manages because they do not trust that anyone else can get things done the way they want it. They also do provide clarity about how they want things done. This adds to the already big bucket of confusion.
- They are selfish and only concerned about their benefits and what is best for them.
- Their expectations are unclear and inconsistent and therefore impossible to achieve.
What Is Passive Leadership?
Now, let’s explore passive leadership.
Pay attention to how these behaviours are aligned with those of toxic leadership. For most of you, toxic leadership may SOUND different and a lot worse than passive leadership, however, they are interchangeable.
When someone displays passive leadership they usually take a hands-off approach. In the beginning, this may appear to be a good thing. No micro-management, not much supervision and being able to perform as you would like are all attractive behaviours.
But – a big BUT – when these behaviours are applied all the time and to every situation, things get out of hand and this eventually becomes toxic.
With inaction comes disengagement. Disengagement results in little or no feedback, ineffective and untimely decision-making and an unwillingness to reward or discipline.
Passive leadership is usually followed by aggressive leadership. This is a full pendulum swing to the other side. All the toxic behaviours outlined previously are suddenly thrown at others. This creates an environment of confusion, mistrust, conflict, misunderstanding and weakened self-confidence.
One And The Same
Are you able to conclude which is worse, toxic leadership or passive leadership? Or, are you like me, making the decision that they are one and the same.
My reasoning is this. Both rivers lead to the same sea. The length of the journey, sites, interactions and experiences may differ. However, the outcome – toxicity in the workplace will be the same.
The intensity, duration and ability to resolve the issues will fluctuate. You may even encounter a waterfall and lose your boat as you nosedive to the next level.
It takes skill, courage and strength to survive and recover from these experiences. This is why it is important for you to invest in sharpening your effectiveness by learning to become and be more assertive.
Role Analysis is a major player here.
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Why Do Employers Allow Toxic Employees To Continue Their Behaviour?
As ironic as this sounds, there are two main reasons why employers allow toxic employees to continue their behaviour that I have encountered.
- Ownership and,
About five (5) years ago, I made a decision to join a family-owned business. The company was started by a shrewd businesswoman, with financial investment from her husband.
Over a period of about twenty (20) she built a very successful business and rewarded one of her long-standing employees with shares and a seat at the Executive table. He was appointed the Managing Director (MD).
At the time, I was not seeking a job. I wanted to invest in a company that would value my skills and in which I could eventually invest in financially. This was a point of the offer by the owner and motivated me to join.
She functioned in the role of Executive Chairman.
Within three (3) months of joining, I discovered that employees were going and coming in droves, the MD was at the point of having a nervous breakdown and almost everyone tip-toed around the Executive Chairman.
The environment was indeed toxic and the MD’s leadership was passive. After all, he was not the major shareholder. The company was owned by the Executive Chairman and her husband.
None of what was discussed with me proved to me forthcoming – or true. The environment was toxic and after one (1) year, we parted ways.
The MD eventually followed suit, after spending over seventeen (17) years in the organisation. He left bitter, broken and in a legal tangle over costs and entitlements.
You may be asking, why did the MD stay there for 17 years, right? I asked both parties that question.
The Executive Chairman said that she had invested a lot in the MD over the years and treated him like her own son. She felt she had done nothing wrong and was a mother, friend and mentor to him. She had taught him everything that he knew. All of this was evident in the financial success that he and his family enjoyed.
But, that came with a high price for the MD.
The environment was so toxic that it did not take me long to conclude that, unless there were some major changes, I could not build a career to work life there.
The Executive Chairman was controlling and made it known that she had “made the MD into who he was today.” The MD kept quiet most of the time, looked very happy and (dis)stressed, most of the time and allowed the Executive Chairman all the room that she demanded.
Employees came and went, quickly. Those who stayed did so because they did not think that they could get a better job, for the same or more pay, somewhere else.
It was a vicious cycle. Both the MD and the Executive Chairman were of the opinion that their performance was the best as they competed, aggressively and openly, with each other.
Can Toxic Leaders Change?
While it is possible to manage and adapt these behaviours, changing some toxic leaders will prove to be impossible. Change is an uphill battle. Achieving it depends a lot on how congruent, self-aware and change ready the leader is.
As a leader, the power to create an environment that facilitates growth, learning and the best behaviours in others. The reverse is also true. You can also use that power – knowingly or unknowingly – to create a workplace in which everyone is unhappy.
How that power is used depends in large part, on the leader’s mental health and emotional well-being. Leaders who are stable, confident, facilitative and authentic tend to nurture supportive and enabling workplaces. They allow their employees to use their best selves and perform well in their jobs.
If the leader is mentally and/or emotionally weak or unstable the culture will be reflective of this. Like will attract like and healthy functioning and capable individuals will not stay.
As a living system, the environment will quickly become an extension of the leader.
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Closing Thoughts . . .
Over the years, as a Coach, Change Agent, Executive and Leader, I have encountered many toxic leaders. In my role as a Human Resources Executive, I have had to manage a few of them out of the organisation.
Many companies support and are breeding grounds for dysfunctional behaviours. Once the financial targets and defined goals are met, decision-makers and owners are inclined to turn a blind eye to these behaviours.
In addition, most people do not enjoy being the “bad guy” or the “bearer of bad news“. They want to pass that work and the blame on to someone else and prefer to use scapegoats rather get their own hands dirty.
Fortunately, there are leaders and Executives who recognise when they have to make changes to their own behaviours and also possess the courage and strength of character to do what is necessary.
These leaders are the ones to look out for, work with and learn from.
I am fortunate to have worked with many of these and still encounter them today.
About The Author
Cassandra is a Management Consultant, Internationally qualified Facilitator, Coach, Strategist and Behaviour Change Agent. She enjoys travelling, exploring cultures and learning about historical and social networks and dynamics.
Her driving force is the education and development of her tween daughter. The roots of her inspiration to diversify her niche markets and the motivation to expand and scale her business investments rest firmly in this relationship.
This is the reason for creating her legacy.