Four Toxic Behaviors All Leaders Should Avoid

Hiscock-toxic leader March 16, 2022 By: Christan Hiscock

Toxic behavior isn’t always obvious. Small, seemingly innocuous actions can be harmful and demeaning toward others. Here are four examples of toxic conduct you might be engaging in—and ways to avoid them.

Most people know that yelling, berating, or undermining someone is toxic behavior, but there are some things you might be doing as a leader that are toxic and you don’t even realize it. Here are a few of them.

Multitasking During Meetings

We have a lot going on during the day, a ton of stuff to do, and many things competing for our attention. However, if you’re multitasking during meetings, you’re sending a message to the person on the other side of the table, or on Zoom, that they are not worthy of your time and full attention. That’s demeaning. As an adult with ADHD, this is a tough one for me, and one that I am working on, because as a heart-centered leader, I want my people to know they matter.

The solution is to make the decision that your meetings are sacred time. Turn off your notifications so you don’t get distracted, put your phone on do not disturb, and give the people in front of you the attention they deserve. Try a walking meeting if you find that your attention tends to waver.

When someone pops by your office to talk and you’re busy, let them know you can’t give them your undivided attention, and ask them to book a time in your calendar so you can give them 100 percent of your focus. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll find that your relationships get a lot better too.

When someone feels a certain way or has an upsetting experience, telling them they shouldn’t feel the way they are feeling is the same as saying their experience isn’t real or valid.

“You Shouldn’t Feel That Way”

No matter how nicely you deliver it, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” “That’s not true,” or any similar variation of those sentences is dismissive and manipulative. When someone feels a certain way or has an upsetting experience, telling them they shouldn’t feel the way they are feeling is the same as saying their experience isn’t real or valid. No one wants to hear that, and it could also have a detrimental effect on their mental well-being. 

The solution is to listen and try to get a better understanding of their side of the situation. That might help you get to a resolution. A better way to approach it is to say, “That must be frustrating,” then allow them the time and the space to respond. You can even follow up with, “What would be an ideal resolution for you?”

Their answer will give you a clear path for your next step. You might not be able to follow through on their ideal solution, but at least you’ll have the information you need to explain why you can’t, and what you can do instead.

Immediate Problem Solving

This might be a surprising one for many leaders because your natural inclination is most likely to figure out a solution when someone brings forward a problem, after all that’s why you’re in the position you’re in. But it’s important to remember that nobody likes to be told what to do. In fact, when you give people answers right away, without allowing them to work through the problem with you, you’re basically sending the message that you don’t think they’re capable of handling it on their own. In the long run, that will undermine the way they think about their abilities, which brings down their self-confidence.

Instead, when someone comes to you with a problem, a great first question to ask is, “Do you want a solution for this, or do you just want someone to listen?” Then you’ll know right away if they’re looking for an answer. Follow up with, “What would be an ideal resolution for you?”

Not Following Through

If you say you’re going to do something, and you don’t follow through on it, then you’re making a statement about your reliability. This includes being late for meetings. If your employees can’t rely on you to do what you say you’re going to do, it could breed distrust and disillusionment.  

When you make a promise or say you’re going to do something, you must deliver. If you can’t for any reason, follow up and let people know. Everyone understands that things happen. Communication is the key.

To be truly a supportive leader, the formula is simple: give your people your undivided attention, truly listen, ask questions, and always do what you say you’re going to do. Following these simple principles is a great way to become a more compassionate leader. 

Christan Hiscock

Christan Hiscock is cofounder and CEO of Kardia, an operational venture capital firm in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.