Organizational Wellness

How to Handle Toxic Leadership

Oct 5, 2023
Last Updated Jan 11, 2024

Leaders make or break a workplace.

Excellent leaders can have an amazing impact. They inspire those around them, offer both encouragement and honest feedback, and actively work on leadership development, among other things. 

Poor leaders can be just as influential. Toxic leadership is characterized by harmful behavior exhibited by those in positions of authority or influence, and it can tear down a team. Toxic leaders are, sadly, not uncommon. A 2022 academic study found that 56% of employees work for a toxic CEO whose behavior fosters an unhealthy work environment.

HR has the responsibility to identify toxic leadership behaviors, and the ability to help everyone in their organizations find healthy leadership styles

Here’s how to recognize toxic behaviors and — what HR can do to heal these unhealthy environments.


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Signs of Toxic Leadership

Certain behaviors will be more obvious than others, but here are some of the most common toxic leadership traits.

Abusive Behavior

In extreme cases, poor leaders may belittle, insult, or verbally attack their coworkers, creating a hostile and demoralizing atmosphere.


Toxic leaders tend to excessively control and monitor those they direct, restricting autonomy and stifling creativity.

Lack of Empathy

They show little concern for the well-being and needs of their team members, disregarding their personal lives and emotions.

Manipulation and Favoritism

They may play politics, favoring certain individuals and forming alliances based on personal agendas rather than merit.


A toxic boss often refuses to take responsibility for their mistakes and instead blames others for their failures.

Lack of Transparency

They withhold information and make decisions without consulting or informing those affected, leading to confusion and resentment.

Resistance to Feedback

Toxic leaders are often resistant to constructive criticism and may even retaliate against those who offer it.

It’s important to remember that type of leadership affects more than the wellbeing of individual employees. It also restricts the overall performance and success of the organization, as miserable employees are less profitable than happy workers.

Impact on Organizational Culture

You’ll come to find that this type of destructive leadership results in:

  • High turnover rates
  • Low morale
  • Poor collaboration and innovation
  • Low employee engagement
  • Low productivity
  • Poor retainment rates

These all make perfect sense — employees that don’t feel appreciated or safe at work aren’t going to perform as well or care about the impact they can have on your organizational culture, which only results in a lack of engagement. Even worse, these toxic behaviors may trickle down, building a culture where future leaders model the toxic practices of their managers and perpetuate these issues. 

Organizations need to identify and address toxic leadership to foster a healthy work environment. This allows them to promote positive outcomes for both employees and the organization as a whole.

Strategies for Addressing Toxic Leadership

So, how do you combat toxic leadership that exists in your organization? Consider these strategies.

Create Awareness and Communication Channels

Addressing toxic leadership begins with creating awareness among employees and stakeholders. Consider conducting workshops and training sessions to educate employees, leaders, and stakeholders about what constitutes toxic behavior, as well as its impacts. You can use real-life toxic leadership examples and case studies to illustrate the consequences of such behavior.

You can also foster open communication channels where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns without fear of retaliation. This can include regular team meetings, anonymous feedback mechanisms, or setting up an office where employees can report issues confidentially.

Implement Effective Performance Management Systems

Performance management systems can play a crucial role in addressing toxic leadership by holding leaders accountable for their behavior and performance. For example, you can utilize a 360-degree feedback process where employees provide feedback on their superiors anonymously, which makes honest responses much more likely.

It’s also important to incorporate assessments that evaluate leaders' emotional intelligence, communication skills, and ability to create a positive work environment. You should consider these factors when hiring and also assess leaders regularly to identify areas where development is needed.

Develop Leadership Training and Mentorship Programs

Leadership training and mentorship programs can help cultivate a positive leadership culture, preventing toxic behaviors from developing or persisting. Such training can focus on improving emotional intelligence, communication, and conflict resolution. You can also institute mentorship or coaching opportunities between seasoned, healthy leaders and future leaders within the company.

Empowering Employees and Promoting a Healthy Work Environment

It’s not just leaders that need to be included in the equation — remind and encourage your employees to offer honest feedback by establishing open lines of communication. Your culture is going to set the tone for both leaders and employees; make sure everyone understands and practices the values of your company, especially when it comes to respect, trust, and inclusivity. When leadership does fail to support a healthy work environment, provide support and resources for employees affected by toxic leadership.

Addressing Toxic Leadership at the Organizational Level

To address toxic leadership effectively, organizations need to have well-defined policies and procedures in place to identify, report, and handle toxic behavior. These policies should clearly outline what constitutes toxic behavior, the reporting process, and the steps that will be taken to investigate and address complaints. Employees will know how to come forward with their concerns, knowing that the organization takes such issues seriously. Plus, leadership will know what’s expected of them.

When reports of toxic leadership or inappropriate behavior arise, the organization needs to conduct thorough and impartial HR investigation. This may involve appointing a neutral party or an internal team to gather evidence, interview relevant parties, and assess the situation objectively.  If the investigation confirms toxic behavior, appropriate actions should be taken, ranging from coaching and training to disciplinary measures or even termination, depending on the severity of the conduct.

Develop a Healthy Work Environment

Rooting out toxic leadership behaviors is foundational to creating a healthy work environment. A positive culture has so many benefits for an organization, including high productivity, better employee retention rates, and increased customer satisfaction. 

Wellness programs can be a strong contributor to maintaining a healthy work environment. They show employees the organization is invested in their wellbeing, and provide them with the tools they need to take care of their own health. 

Wellhub can help you foster a positive company culture. Our flexible wellbeing subscription gives employees access to thousands of wellness activities and apps. From gym memberships to meditation apps, we can help employees wherever they are on their wellness journey.

Talk to a wellbeing specialist today for help building a healthy work environment!

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Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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