Working under toxic leadership can be damaging to an employee's well-being and to the overall success of a company. With increased emphasis on employee mental health and the shift back to in-person work that has recently taken place, employees rely on leaders to guide, support and inspire more than ever.

Unfortunately, when a leader exhibits certain behaviors and traits that contribute to a toxic work environment, it can be one of the main sources of stress for employees. The following characteristics and actions are red flags indicating a leader could be hazardous to the overall success and well-being of employees:

Lack of empathy

Workplace environments can be severely harmed when a leader is unable to relate to or comprehend the worries and wants of their employees. This can lead to a sense of separation and disengagement. Building relationships and trust with employees will become increasingly challenging when employees feel they are misunderstood and disconnected from their leader.

A common way leaders show a lack of empathy to their employees is by not engaging in active listening. Employees can feel frustrated and worthless when a leader ignores verbal and non-verbal messages. Actively listening to employees creates a sense of mutual understanding and can lead to innovative ideas and elevated trust.

Inability to receive criticism

Inability to receive criticism worsens distrust and cooperation between a leader and an employee. A toxic leader will take a defensive stance against critique, which will make it nearly impossible for them to learn from a mistake.

Further, an employee will be less inclined to speak up in the future after receiving a negative reaction to giving criticism. The relationship between the employee and the leader may suffer as a result, and the company's ability to grow successfully may also be hampered.

Lack of clear goals

Competent leaders have clear, attainable goals and have plans in place to assist employees in achieving these favorable outcomes. Without identifiable endpoints, employees can feel lost and frustrated. This can lead to confusion about priorities, hierarchy and purpose.

Teams that lack direction may become bogged down in ambiguity and gradually become less productive. Not only do toxic leaders fail at setting discernable goals, but also at not clearly communicating these goals to their employees.

Setting goals is only the beginning for leaders. Goals must be attainable by their employees with consideration to time, availability of resources and the skillset of the employees. Creating clear, attainable goals allows employees to feel capable and organized, which will create trust with their leader.


Inevitably, leaders will have a select group of workers with whom they connect more deeply than others. This is normal, but a toxic leader will manifest their bias in a dishonest manner. This can happen, for instance, when a boss compliments a favored worker for subpar work. Commonly, this favoritism will create toxic relationships not only with the leader and employees, but also amongst the employees themselves.

Nepotism is a term that has received a lot of attention lately. Essentially, nepotism is shown in a workplace when a leader uses their power to give relatives or friends an upper hand in job applications or promotions. Employees not related to or friends with their leader can feel a sense of hopelessness when this occurs, as they feel that there is nothing they can do that will allow them to achieve their goals. This can make the worker doubt their merit to the company and possibly make them think they should seek employment elsewhere.

Lack of physical presence

The first thing that typically springs to mind when considering the greatest leaders in history is their faces. A good leader can be recognized by their team members and makes an effort to engage with each person as well as the overall team. Leaders who arrive on time and are well prepared convey to their team that they are invested in and concerned about them.

Engagement is the most important part of physical presence. A toxic leader can be physically there, but they may not be engaged if they are preoccupied with their phone or some other egregiously unimportant task. Through interaction, toxic leaders make their employees feel that their time has been wasted, while good leaders make their employees feel reenergized and valued.

Distrust of employees

Having low faith in staff to execute daily responsibilities can lead to a toxic workplace. Leaders that exhibit this quality frequently turn to micromanagement, which has a number of detrimental outcomes. While they should be concentrating more on the big picture and delegating everyday duties to their team, toxic leaders become mired down in the little things.

Employee confidence can become stripped away when they are constantly dependent on their leader for guidance. This constant back-and-forth is time consuming and can create burnout both for the leader and the employee. Creativity, productivity and improvement can be impeded when employees feel an increase of stress due to micromanagement. Good leaders trust that they have prepared their employees to handle tasks and created an environment where employees feel comfortable to ask for feedback.

Ultimately, toxic leaders can seriously harm a business by making the workplace intolerable, reducing productivity and encouraging high turnover. Leaders must make effective use of their power by positively influencing employees and creating a safe workplace environment. Toxicity can leak into the workplace when power is used for self-righteous means. Leaders must ensure that all decisions they make have a beneficial impact for the employees and for the overall organization. Leadership is a difficult task and one that is nearly impossible to master. Good leaders will spend their entire lives working to become better motivators, listeners and collaborators.