Toxic at the Top: Can badly behaved managers and leaders be reformed?

Rose Bryant-Smith
August 23, 2017

At Worklogic we are commonly asked how to build a good workplace culture and ensure employees are accountable for their conduct at work… when senior leaders and managers are setting a bad example.

Those responsible for setting and enforcing conduct standards for employees know that they are fighting an uphill battle when destructive behaviour is being modelled at senior levels. Employees can quite rightfully object, pointing at the senior leader and saying ‘How dare you tell me to behave well, when the executives are the worst offenders?’. We heard this very phrase in a training workshop about values earlier this year!

Here is a tried and true approach to addressing toxic behaviour at the top.

First Question: Why is the organisation turning a blind eye?

A useful question to start: why is the senior leader being allowed to behave badly? In our experience, senior leaders are only allowed to behave badly if they are perceived to bring more value to the organisation than the harm they are causing. There’s an assumption that their bad behaviour has to be tolerated.

There could be a variety of reasons for this. They might be:

  • The founder or a part-owner of the organisation (‘untouchable’);
  • Perceived as uniquely special and hard to replace (‘the talent’);
  • Particularly good performers in the quantitative results they produce (‘rainmakers’); or
  • Excellent at managing up, so others fear they will be protected from on high if they are ever challenged on their behaviour towards their direct reports (‘immune’).

Second Question: What has led this person to believe that they can get away with this behaviour?

This is the next question to ask. No one behaves in a bullying, sexist or corrupt way in an organisation without someone knowing about it, and people choosing to allow them to continue. The person behaving badly probably believes that they can get away with it because of:

  • Bad behaviour is allowed elsewhere in organisation, damaging its ability to sanction breaches
  • The culture of the organisation tacitly or directly rewards aggressive, domineering behaviour – e.g. it is interpreted as ‘effective’, ‘competitive’ or ‘getting things done’
  • Their ability (so far) to hide the impacts of their own bad behaviour from those who could intervene
  • The organisation only judging their performance on the results of their efforts (eg sales numbers), with no regard to how those results were achieved

Third Question: How can their behaviour (and the consequences of their behaviour) be made more visible?

In order for the organisation (HR, legal, the Board) to intervene, the poor conduct of the senior leader and the impacts of that behaviour of the organisation’s efficiency, risks and compliance, must be made visible.

There are all sorts of ways of increasing the visibility of the conduct of senior leaders. Here are a few.

  • 360⁰ assessments, including anonymous feedback
  • Implement a whistleblower (complaints-handling) service which enables people to complain anonymously directly to the Board – see for example which Worklogic offers as a subscription service
  • An annual employee survey, with trends tracked over time and broken down to division
  • Workplace reviews – An in-depth exploration of employee experiences, allowing anonymous reports of improper conduct
  • Exit interviews with departing senior executives conducted by a Board member

Gathering more information about what is really going on in a team or division can be incredibly helpful. For a not-for profit organisation that Worklogic assisted last year, we were asked to explore claims of micro-managing and sexual harassment by a Regional Manager. Our Workplace Review uncovered that in fact the problem was upwards bullying by a group of employees led by a rabble rouser, including racism and sexism against the Regional Manager.

Fourth Question: What should the consequences be for the senior leader’s bad behaviour?

Once the senior leader’s bad behaviour has been uncovered and made visible to other decision-makers, real disciplinary consequences must flow. They should be given a formal warning with required improvements, effective immediately. They could also be offered Remedial Training / Coaching, or given direct, unedited and unsoftened feedback from direct reports and peers. Sometimes psychological counselling is also recommended.

Of course, you can’t really reform someone who is fundamentally flawed. What you can do is send the leader a strong direction about not behaving that way any more – that this type of behaviour is not welcome in this organisation. It may have been tolerated in the past, but no longer.

There’s no guarantee that a powerful executive will change because you ask them to. However, the organisation has an obligation to try.

Three More Essential Tactics

There are three more tactics which are necessary for an organisation to respond properly to poor conduct by senior leaders. These are more systemic and bigger picture – and just as important as addressing the individual.

1. Address issues with ethical culture

2. No more ‘running riot’: Improve the clarity of structure, reporting and KPIs

3. Re-think leadership: What type of leader do we want to take our company into the future?

In an organisation where these foundations are right, the individual bully cannot thrive.

Join me at my webinar on Tuesday 29th August to learn more about dealing with someone who is toxic at the top! Register now.


About Rose Bryant-Smith

Rose Bryant-SmithRose Bryant-Smith is the co-founder and director of Worklogic. She is passionate about building ethical, productive and innovative workplaces. Rose leads projects about organisational ethics, risk management, corporate governance and organisational performance.

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace complaints and create a positive culture at work.

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Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.