It’s safe to assume no or very few leaders wake up each day and say, “Today, I’m going to make my employees’ lives as miserable as possible.”
And yet, we’ve all known or experienced a toxic boss. So, how do leaders go from good intentions to completely damaging their team’s morale?
Here’s one of the biggest reasons: thoughtlessness. That’s right–whether you realize it or not, your people are paying close attention to your mood and behavior, no matter how subtle.
Leaders like to assume they are motivational rather than annoying or scary, but a self-assessment can help you determine definitively if you are displaying positive leadership.
If you’re curious as a leader where you fall on the good boss/bad boss spectrum, here are four signs you may be sliding more into toxic behavior.
Your people are scared to speak up
In a healthy workplace, employees are encouraged to use their voice, offer suggestions, and speak candidly about any problems or concerns they might have. So, a glaring red flag that things have gone awry is when people stop talking.
According to Harvard Business Review’s Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala, if you find your team isn’t speaking up, your company culture is to blame. One reason, the researchers suggest, is that your work environment is not conducive for being more vocal. “They might fear suffering significant social costs by challenging their bosses.”
How might you be contributing to this toxic culture? It could be something as simple as dismissing someone’s feedback during a meeting or debating a team member when they bring up an issue.
And it could also come down to something as simple as not handing over the mic. At my form-building company, it’s important for me to encourage my staff to speak up about their ideas and opinions, both when everyone is meeting face to face and over video conference. I’ve found it gives employees the confidence to share and contribute more openly and without barriers.
Your team doesn’t trust you
This can be a tricky one for leaders. How can you tell whether your employees trust you? Here’s a scenario you might encounter: walking into a room full of team members enthusiastically chatting about their day. If they stop talking rather than include you in their conversation, it’s a clear sign something is off.
So, what are the key factors generating this distrust? For one, a lack of interest in your employees as human beings. For example, you show a lack of appreciation for their lives, by showing no curiosity about who they are outside of work.
Additionally, when people think of a trustworthy leader, they think of someone who can own up to their mistakes.
It’s easy to talk about building a positive company culture, but failing to embody the values you espouse only ends up damaging trust. In their book Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace, Dennis and Michelle Reina explain that “the best thing you can do to help others take responsibility is to authentically practice the behaviors that you want others to practice. In other words, you have to walk the talk.”
Your behavior is killing motivation
Of all the temptations that exist for managers, micro-managing takes the cake. Sure, you don’t mean to be toxic—you’re trying to help your people be more efficient, help them manage their time. But guess what? You’re doing the exact opposite, especially with high achievers.
In her illuminating Harvard Business Review story, Rebecca Knight notes that this can be a hard habit to break, and offers a clear example to glean whether you’ve fallen into the “control freak” camp: “If you’re the kind of boss who lasers in on details, prefers to be cc’ed on emails, and is rarely satisfied with your team’s work, then—there’s no kind way to say this—you’re a micromanager,” she writes.
To put this into perspective of your impact: You’re setting up a significantly more stressful working environment, stifling creativity, and fostering burnout—everything a good boss should not do.
With all these points of advice, you may be thinking, “This is well and good, but now that I know better, how do I change my ways?””
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned while leading my company for over a decade: You start by stepping back, gradually. It’s critical for you as a leader to embrace trust and support your employees rather than unnecessarily try to oversee their every move. I know this can feel scary when you’re a perfectionist (as I have a tendency to be), but keeping close tabs on your team only derails their confidence and motivation. And, according to Rebecca Knight, creating awareness around why you participate in this kind of behavior is the first step toward changing it.
You don’t listen
I was in an airport lobby once where a businessman was speaking loudly on a lengthy phone call. I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced this obnoxious attitude before—whether while boarding a plane or sitting in a cafe. The thing is, the businessman rambled on and on, never pausing even to take a breath. I wondered what the person on the other end of the call must have thought.
It goes without saying: Try not to be this guy. One of the biggest things toxic leaders have in common is they simply don’t listen. They love the sound of their own voice or don’t know when to stop.
Leaders who listen to understand form better connections and relationships. They develop a more engaged workforce and don’t lose out on invaluable insights their teams have to offer.
Listening involves complete attention without interruptions; it involves patience, and the desire to understand the other person’s point of view. In other words, it’s the ability to put your ego aside and encourage each team member to become more invested in the conversation. Ultimately, these are a couple of the traits that all great bosses share.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, an online form builder.