3 Toxic Leadership Behaviors that Destroy Innovation and Problem Solving

August 20, 2020

3 Toxic Leadership Behaviors that Destroy Innovation and Problem Solving

If you’re looking to build a courageous culture, where people speak up, share ideas and advocate for your customers, start by eliminating the toxic leadership behaviors crushing engagement and burning out your team.  

In our recent research on courageous cultures, conducted with the University of North Colorado social research lab, 40 percent of our participants said they “lack the confidence to share their ideas,” 50 percent felt their ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously, and 56 percent said withhold their ideas because they were afraid they wouldn’t be given credit.

When we dug underneath the numbers, we heard frustrations like this:

  • “My boss was exaggerating the numbers to our leadership team. I held fast to the truth.”
  • “I stood up to a boss who was trying to bully me.”
  • “I called ethics because I was tired of all the screaming. And then I got retaliated against for calling ethics.”
  • “My boss consistently takes credit for my ideas. I’ve stopped bothering.”

Zero Tolerance: Stop the Courage Crushers

Sobering answers, aren’t they? When people spend their courage reserves just getting past the bad stuff, there’s no energy left for the courage your business needs most—creative problem solving and micro-innovation.

For most people, innovation takes energy and courage. The courage to be vulnerable, to risk rejection from their peers, or to invite uncertainty. Energy that, faced with the stress of a global pandemic and other challenges, is already in short supply.

Your people can make that effort only a limited number of times before they’re done. The more courage they use to address injustice, toxic leadership, needless politics, or poor decision-making, the less energy they’ll have to spend on what really matters. 

Three Toxic Leadership Behaviors that Shut People Down

The three most toxic behaviors we hear being tolerated (and even rewarded) are shaming, blaming, and intimidation. 

It’s the chief operating officer who projects a list of all her senior leaders in stack-ranked order on the screen at the company off-site meeting and then works her way through the list from the bottom up, sarcastically criticizing them in front of their peers and handing them a microphone to respond, while all their peers laugh nervously while silently praying they’ll be spared next time.

Or the vice president who berates his direct reports for a strategic choice “they made” that didn’t pan out, even though the VP was the one who made the final call despite the team’s concerns and objections.

Or the executive who flies around on the corporate jet and delivers fix-it-or-else ultimatums, overlooks all the great results and leaves a wake of intimidation-induced frenzy—all to show how serious she is to make things better.

Shame, blame and intimidation have no place in a courageous culture—and yet you might be surprised how frequently we encounter these counter-productive activities, even in organizations that invest in resources and systems to foster courage and innovation. Don’t let one or two bullies undermine your culture strategy.

The Behavior of EVERY Leader Matters

When you’re looking to build a great culture, the behavior of every leader matters. 

We talk to so many senior leaders who convince themselves that they must tolerate the toxic leadership behaviors of an executive or middle manager because of “all the other things they bring to the table” (such as innovation, deep customer relationships, the biggest sales funnel). 

They tell us “they’re too valuable to fire.”

If this sounds familiar, think about the messages leaving a toxic leader in place is sending to your team. First, you’ve told your team that you lack courage. You’re not a strong enough leader to create a courageous culture.

Next, you’ve told your team members that you don’t value them. If you did value them, you would ensure they were treated humanely. Finally, you’ve told everyone that this kind of abuse, harassment and bullying is okay.

You’ve planted seeds for even more chaos and disruption. We’ve had countless managers raise their hands in our training sessions and say, “Well this all sounds great, but they’re not serious about that here. Otherwise [insert courage crusher leader’s name here] would not be so successful. It’s sad but that’s what it takes to get ahead around here.”

Even a few examples of toxic leadership behaviors will be enough for many employees to see that this is how leaders are encouraged to act. And they will see this even if they’re surrounded by a dozen other leaders proactively working to build the culture they want. 

If you’re serious about building a courageous culture, start with a zero tolerance for toxic leadership behaviors in every leader.

The Authors: 

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders and authors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins, July 2020).