Tips for Thought

Addressing Toxic Leadership

August 9, 2023, Maj. Gen. Eric Little, a senior National Guard official, was fired from his position as the National Guard’s top general for personnel following an investigation by the Army’s inspector general. The investigation revealed that he had dismissed concerns about troubling behavior towards women in his office, attributing it to gender-based stereotypes. Little’s office was found to be a hub of misconduct and a toxic work environment. He oversaw sexual assault prevention and equal opportunity programs, a critical role given the military’s struggle with sexual assault within its ranks. The Army’s response to the issue has been criticized for its slow and inadequate action. This incident underscores ongoing challenges in addressing workplace culture, sexual harassment, and assault within the military.

This situation is a prime example of toxic leadership within a military organization. Toxic leadership refers to a leadership style that harms the well-being, morale, and performance of individuals and the overall organization. Several aspects of Maj. Gen. Eric Little’s behavior and actions demonstrate toxic leadership:

  • Dismissal of Concerns. Little’s initial response to concerns about troubling behavior towards women in his office was dismissive. Toxic leaders often ignore or downplay issues, failing to address them adequately.
  • Gender Stereotyping. Little’s comment about “Air Force women are emotional” reflects a gender-based stereotype and a lack of respect for his female colleagues. Toxic leaders often display biased attitudes and prejudices.
  • Creating a Hostile Work Environment. The investigation found that Little’s office was a center of misconduct, sexism, and favoritism. Toxic leaders can create an atmosphere of fear, disrespect, and hostility, which undermines collaboration and overall productivity.
  • Lack of Accountability. Despite substantiated allegations, the Army declined to provide details about the administrative action taken against Little. Toxic leaders may evade accountability for their actions, perpetuating a culture of impunity.
  • Resistance to Change. The military’s slow response to addressing concerns over sexual harassment and assault illustrates a broader resistance to change within the organization. Toxic leaders often resist necessary reforms and improvements that could address underlying issues.
  • Impact on Morale and Performance. Toxic leadership erodes trust and damages morale, leading to decreased performance and productivity. Little’s behavior likely contributed to a negative work environment and potentially impacted the effectiveness of his team.
  • Failure to Uphold Values. Leaders are expected to uphold their organization’s values. Little’s behavior and the misconduct within his office went against the military’s commitment to professionalism, respect, and equal treatment.
  • Negative Organizational Culture. Toxic leadership can foster a culture of fear, secrecy, and poor communication. The allegations against Little, including sexism and misconduct, contributed to an unhealthy work culture.

So, what exactly does toxic leadership look like?

Toxic leaders often prioritize their own interests, use fear and intimidation to maintain control, and create a hostile work environment. Here are some common traits of toxic leadership and strategies for handling it:

  • Lack of Empathy. Toxic leaders disregard the feelings and concerns of their subordinates, showing little empathy or understanding.
  • Micromanagement. They excessively control and scrutinize every aspect of their subordinates’ work, leading to demotivation and reduced autonomy.
  • Bullying and Intimidation. Toxic leaders use fear and intimidation to maintain control, often belittling, humiliating, or threatening their subordinates.
  • Favoritism. They show favoritism towards certain individuals, leading to feelings of unfairness and divisiveness within the team.
  • Blaming and Shaming. Toxic leaders often shift blame onto others and publicly shame individuals for mistakes, eroding confidence and trust.
  • Poor Communication. They fail to provide clear direction, withhold information, and avoid open dialogue, leading to confusion and misunderstandings.
  • Resistance to Feedback. Toxic leaders reject or ignore constructive feedback and view it as a challenge to their authority.
  • Inconsistent Behavior. They exhibit unstable and unpredictable behavior, making it difficult for subordinates to understand expectations.
  • Ethical Lapses. Toxic leaders may engage in unethical behavior, violating organizational values and norms.

They only work to promote themselves, oftentimes at the expense of others.

Handling Toxic Leadership

This involves recognizing the signs of detrimental behavior, documenting instances of toxicity, seeking support from trusted colleagues or HR, engaging in constructive communication with the toxic leader about their behavior’s impact, escalating concerns through formal channels if necessary, gathering witnesses if others have experienced similar behavior, prioritizing self-care to manage the emotional toll, exploring external resources if internal avenues fail, and advocating for organizational change to promote healthy leadership practices and foster a positive work environment.

  • Recognize the Signs. Be aware of the characteristics of toxic leadership and how they may manifest in your organization.
  • Document Behavior. Keep records of toxic behavior, including dates, incidents, and witnesses. This documentation can be helpful if you need to address the issue formally.
  • Seek Support. If possible, discuss your concerns with trusted colleagues, mentors, or HR representatives who can provide guidance and advice.
  • Constructive Communication. If you feel safe doing so, address the issue with the toxic leader using “I” statements and specific examples of their behavior’s impact on you and the team.
  • Utilize Formal Channels. If informal communication doesn’t yield results, escalate the issue through appropriate organizational channels, such as HR or your supervisor.
  • Gather Witnesses. If multiple individuals have experienced or witnessed toxic behavior, gather their support to address the issue more effectively.
  • Self-Care. Toxic leadership can take a toll on your well-being—practice self-care strategies to manage stress and maintain emotional resilience.
  • External Resources. If internal channels fail, consider seeking external resources such as legal counsel or ombudsman services.
  • Advocate for Change. Encourage organizational leaders to implement training and policies that promote healthy leadership behaviors and address toxic leadership.
  • Exit Strategy. If the toxic environment persists and negatively impacts your well-being, consider seeking opportunities elsewhere.

The case of Maj. Gen. Eric Little’s dismissal serves as a stark reminder of the corrosive effects of toxic leadership within military organizations and beyond. Recognizing the signs, documenting behavior, seeking support, and advocating for change are crucial steps for individuals to counter such leadership. By taking a stand against toxic leadership, we contribute to fostering healthier workplaces that prioritize respect, collaboration, and individual well-being. To learn more about this topic, consider reading books about toxic leadership to gain valuable perspectives.