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Three Practical Tips on How to Prevent Toxicity in Your Leadership


How to avoid toxic leadership

Remember your childhood dream.

If there is one common thing that we've all dreamed of, we all wanted to be a good person. To make the world a better place. To make others safe, happy, and successful.

How to prevent toxic leadership in you

Let's take a hard look at ourselves. If we are truly honest with ourselves, not all of us can confidently say what we are today clearly reflects our childhood dreams. This reminds us why we need to consistently and committedly check our path and make any necessary shifts.

If you are in a place where your influence impacts people around you, it is time for you to assess your leadership skills. The ability to direct people on the right path and provide the best resources for them to thrive is an essential skill to master not just for your own success but also for your organization's long-term triumph.

leadership skills how to avoid toxicity

According to a survey by FlexJobs, a whopping 87% of people have experienced a toxic leader at some point in their career. This result implies that almost everyone meets at least a subpar, incompetent, and damaging boss who not only demotivates employees but gives them serious anxiety, stress, and fatigue. On the other hand, this data also gives us a rude awakening. If we don't consciously make intentional efforts to evaluate our leadership skills and make necessary changes, we risk (loosely) an 87% chance of becoming a toxic leader.

Becoming a toxic boss/coworker is the last thing we want in our career. How can we ensure we don't become one of them? This question needs to be answered with one's particular context. However, there are some common grounds that seem to overlap across industries.

In this article, I would like to share three practical insights you can put into practice right away. You might think they are quite simple and even obvious. Let's not forget that knowing what is wrong does not equate to making efforts to improve the issue.

leadership skills how to avoid toxicity make work meaningful

Make Work Meaningful and Reasonable

It is a basic human desire to be respected and valued. As a result, we want our work to contribute to a substantive and meaningful cause. It is only reasonable that we get demotivated and frustrated when we think and feel that our work is meaningless.

It must be any leader's top priority to clearly and consistently communicate how one's work contributes to a big mission the company pursues. If this part is neglected, employees may feel severely demoralized and even disrespected.

On the other hand, a leader must make his/her people's work reasonable. This does not only mean delegating a realistic amount of work to employees. More importantly, it means a leader must test if what we call 'reality' covertly encourages mediocrity.

leadership skills from Steve Jobs mentorship

Though gone for several years now, Steve Jobs is still famous for his unique leadership. He might not have been a person with the best empathy or kindness. Nonetheless, it was Jobs' unwavering vision for excellence that enabled him to achieve world-class success.

One week before the first Macintosh computer was supposed to ship, the engineers told Jobs that they could not make the assigned deadline. To the worried engineers, Jobs calmly yet insistently responded to them by saying they'd come this far and done so much good work and they were certainly able to make the deadline. Jobs saw hesitancy, fear, self-doubt, and inclination to mediocrity jumbled in their protest for being realistic. Long story short, the engineers were able to hit the deadline as Jobs had argued.

When you push your people because you see a clear potential in them, you might hurt their feelings at least temporarily. However, they are not harmed. If you are confident that your people have the potential to grow but they don't see that themselves, clearly communicate it with them. Don't be afraid to play devil's advocate to push them out of their comfort zones.

Remember, 'leader' is an action word with a direction. By clearly communicating your why and actively engaging in their growth, you are investing in their sustaining success.

Leadership skills power of appreciation gratitude

Express Your Appreciation

There are two ways to reinforce a new attitude/behaviour in a person: Punishment and positive reinforcement. Every day, we see them happen. Work is not an exception. Leaders use both positive and negative reinforcement to motivate their people and bring them closer to the shared goal.

Many managers underutilize the potential of positive reinforcement compared to negative reinforcement. They often worry that openly expressing gratitude might be perceived as unprofessional or that it could lead to a overly relaxed work environment. However, extensive research consistently demonstrates that positive reinforcement is not only more effective but also quicker in yielding results than negative reinforcement. When people receive recognition, their productivity increases. At the same time, safety incidents and absenteeism are reduced.

When you express appreciation, there are a few things you always need to be cognizant of.

First, avoid favourtism at all costs. Never use the expression of appreciation as an excuse for your distorted favourtism. Second, ensure that your expressions are unambiguous and made in a public manner. Deliver them directly so that the recipients don't overlook or misunderstand your gestures of gratitude. Third, your expression needs to carry detailed information. For example, just saying "Thank you" may sound like a rhetorical expression. On the contrary, if you say "Thank you for going the extra mile to provide me with all the helpful resources for this project. Your support enabled me to not only finish it on time but also deliver great results", it would be highly effective.

leadership constructive interaction

Interact Constructively

Have you ever encountered someone with significant emotional volatility? On days when they are in a positive mood, they seem receptive to your input, even your feedback. Yet, on days when their mood is off, they exhibit unwarranted aggressiveness and sarcasm. It becomes exceptionally challenging to anticipate their reaction each time you interact with them, and you often feel as if you must tread carefully in their presence.

If you have experienced a similar case, it is no wonder why research finds people prefer predictability in a boss over perfection.

Let's be brutally honest with ourselves. What is your go-to reaction when you are tired, under pressure, frustrated, or anxious? You might not be emotionally volatile like the mentioned example above but possibly throw off negative emotions via equally destructive means such as passive aggressiveness, sarcasm, put-downs, or even threats or gaslighting. They all are highly toxic and corrosive not just on a personal level but also on an organizational level. They will drive highly competent people out of your circle. If you suspect you might display one of these highly damaging patterns, we strongly advise you to pause and evaluate yourself. Receiving honest feedback is extremely helpful. Find someone you can trust and ask them if you demonstrate any toxic behaviours. Understand the underlying reasons for these behaviours, and make intentional efforts to replace them with more socially beneficial and constructive patterns.

The next time you experience anxiety, take a moment to acknowledge that the issue at hand often appears more substantial than it truly is. When you are criticized, do not try to justify your faults or blame others. Honestly admit mistakes and work on continuously improving yourself. Brené Brown, a research professor in Social Work at the University of Houston, argues that vulnerability, a.k.a. openly acknowledging your challenges and taking ownership of them, lies at the heart of meaningful human experiences. Embracing vulnerability demonstrates immense courage as it opens doors to creating or revitalizing relationships and adopting new, healthier habits.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to shape the culture within your team or organization, and this process begins with your everyday behaviour and attitude. Begin refining your behaviour to foster a positive and productive corporate culture. This effort will naturally draw in more talented individuals who can contribute to your team's growth and success.

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