The dangers of corrosive leadership


Would you spot a corrosive leader?

Leadership can make or break any business. As the individuals responsible for motivating and guiding employees, leaders have the power to create an environment that enables their team and the wider business to thrive. However, those leaders who display corrosive leadership behaviours can quickly destroy employee engagement and moral, as well as affect your bottom line.

Corrosive leadership

The disappointing truth? Most, if not all of us, will at some point witness or directly experience the impact of corrosive leadership. Let’s not forget that poor management remains one of the top drivers for employees leaving an organisation.

However, it’s not only employee retention that is impacted by corrosive leadership. The individuals that ‘stick it out’ hoping for change will overtime become demotivated if no action is taken. With little trust in their leader or the organisation’s willingness to put the necessary measures in place to develop leaders, employees may channel feelings of negativity towards the organisation, leading to disengagement and a drop in productivity, which may cause the bottom line to plunge.

Corrosive leadership behaviours

The media is full of examples of corrosive leadership behaviours. Corrosive leadership, similar to toxic leadership, can be understood as the repeated behaviour of a leader that violates the legitimate interest of the organisation. However, the leader themselves may be completely unaware of the negative impact their leadership style has on employees and the overall business. Some examples of corrosive leadership behaviours to look out for are:

  • Micro-management: often displayed as a constant checking and validating of work or a reluctance to hand over work or projects in their entirety. Micro-managers may lack the ability to ‘trust’ their team members or give their employees the impression that they are not confident in their ability. Micromanagement causes a slowdown of processes and may affect the confidence of employees leading to a reluctance to own projects.
  • Preoccupation with own challenges: leaders can at times find themselves under pressure, overwhelmed or overworked which may lead them to focus on their own individual challenges, rather than at how these challenges are impacting their team. With the focus on how they will overcome challenges as the individual, it may leave team members who are struggling or in need of support feel as though they do not have a leader who protects them.
  • Greater concern for their reputation than the teams: these leaders are focussed on raising their own internal and external profile and can be seen to self-promote rather than acknowledge or thank their team for the parts they play in success. This lack of recognition for others is often very transparent and can result in team members choosing to give less than they are capable of as they feel the work they are doing it being attributed to the leader, rather than the team.
  • Respect demanded and based on hierarchy as opposed to ‘earnt’ or based on productivity and supportiveness: leaders who use their position to exert control over their team or abuse their position frequently find themselves losing the respect of their team; leading to a lack of collaboration and willingness to support.
  • Unable to have genuine ‘open’ conversations for fear of a negative reaction: open communication is key to good leadership and even though a leader may encourage this, they may be unaware of how their response is received. It can be the difference between employees feeling they can be open and honest during communication, or feeling the need to hold back for fear of a negative response, for example being seen as unable to cope with a situation or criticised for complaining.
  • Adoption of a command and control leadership style that does not breed trust or inclusivity: often taking a tell/do approach to tasks rather than encouraging knowledge and idea sharing. Individuals may feel they are unable to give their opinions for fear of being shut down, or provide constructive feedback as the leader believes there way is the correct way, and does not take others feedback on board. This command and control approach is dangerous; stifling accountability and innovation.

Continuous leadership development

We often hear that great leaders are ‘born’ not made, however this infrequently the case. Great leaders are not born. Moreover, they develop over time through a mixture of continuous learning, trial and error. Of course, some elements of leadership will come more naturally than others; however, leadership is a continual journey of evolution.

Leaders can be completely unaware of corrosive elements of their leadership style, instead believing based on experience that this is the best approach. Providing leaders with continual development opportunities, either through coaching, mentoring or leadership development programmes and 360 feedback can help highlight and guide leaders when they are unaware of how certain qualities or thinking may be affecting their team or the wider business. Such programmes will also help leaders navigate the changing business landscape, generational differences and any new challenges that require a different leadership approach.

Developing corrosive leaders

Not everyone has the good fortune of working under a good leader and corrosive leadership styles can at times go unnoticed by those outside of the leader’s direct reports, but the consequences of poor leadership will be felt across the business, whether through decreased engagement, low morale, high turnover rates or a lack of productivity.

It’s imperative for HR and Senior Leaders to be aware of and able to spot a corrosive leader so they can put the necessary measures and development plans in place to help guide and make this leader aware of how their behaviours and style impact employees and the wider business.