How to Spot a Toxic Leader

If you find yourself dreading going to work, no longer feeling rewarded by performing your job, frequently getting caught up in workplace drama, only getting work related information through rumors and gossips and constantly feeling stressed both psychological and physically — you might be working in a toxic work environment.

What is the cause of a work environment becoming toxic? It can very well be the prevalence of toxic leadership.

So what does a toxic leader look like? There are many aspects of toxic leadership and a leader only needs to exhibit one or a few of them to be considered toxic.

The easiest way to spot one is to see whether or not the leader exhibits abusive supervision behaviors. An abusive leader often belittles, ridicules, blames and lies to his/her employees.[1]

Here on Lead Read Today, we frequently write about the negative consequences of abusive supervision [Click HERE to read posts from the leading researcher on abusive supervision]. Such behaviors not only impair employees’ performance, commitment to the organization and work engagement, but they also damage employees’ mental and physical health in the long run.

Laissez-faire leaders are toxic as well. These leaders are indecisive, non-inclusive, uninvolved, withdrawn when needed, reluctant to take a stand and apply no effort to motivate, reward, punish or develop employees.[2]

Such leadership style can create frustration and stress for employees because of the lack of direction and clarity within the work environment. Meanwhile, with laissez-faire leaders at the helm, bullying and other destructive interpersonal behaviors (e.g., stealing another’s project or work) will not be corrected, which can make the work environment even more toxic.

Moreover, if you find your leader to be a narcissist, chances are he/she may also contribute to a toxic work environment. A narcissistic leader is more likely to manipulate and control (or believe they can manipulate or control) others, play favorites, take all the credit, create drama to gain and hoard attention, brag about themselves, be sensitive to criticisms, get angry when being criticized, have a lack of empathy and remain unwilling to change.[3]

You probably can already see why leader’s narcissism can be a huge problem for the organization and its people. However, a narcissistic leader sometimes can be hard to spot at when you first meet them — due to their sociable, outgoing and charismatic nature (to fulfill their feeling of grandiosity), which make them seem leader-like.[4]

Like real-life toxins, the longer exposure to a toxic leader, the more harm his/her behaviors can cause you and your coworkers. Even worse, these toxic leadership behaviors hurt those who love their work the most. One study found that when working for an abusive supervisor, the more meaningful an employee thinks of his/her job, the stronger the negative impact of the supervisor’s behaviors is on one’s performance.[5]

Therefore, if you find yourself working for a toxic leader, run away as quickly as you can: One can not only wreak havoc to your career but can also damage your mental and physical health in the long run.

If you are managing a toxic leader, try to clearly communicate with them on what is acceptable and what is not. Assist them in setting behavioral expectations around the office to help them become better leaders. Because sometimes, the fact is, some leaders become toxic because they truly don’t know how to better manage people.


[1] Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 178-190.


[2] Li, M. (2018). Laissez-Faire leadership. Why doing nothing is as bad as doing something wrong. Lead Read Today, retrieved from:


[3] Brunell, A. B., Gentry, W. A., Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Kuhnert, K. W., & DeMarree, K. G. (2008). Leader emergence: The case of the narcissistic leader. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1663-1676.


[4] Owens, B. P., Wallace, A. S., & Waldman, D. A. (2015). Leader narcissism and follower outcomes: The counterbalancing effect of leader humility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 1203-1676.


[5] Harris, K. J., Kacmar, K. M., & Zivnuska, S. (2007). An investigation of abusive supervision as a predictor of performance and the meaning of work as a moderator of the relationship. The Leadership Quarterly, 18, 252-263.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.