The Toxic Triangle

Key Thought

Toxic cultures are a function of three components that propagate their existence: leaders, followers and the organisational environment. Each contributes to sustaining the dysfunctional workplace.

Few things survive in isolation. Toxic leaders are frequently identified and characterised, but they cannot exist in a vacuum. By definition, a toxic leader must have followers and invariably, this leader-follower relationship will occur in the context of an organisation or community.

  1. The toxic leader is characterised by five dimensions:
    • Abusive supervision: the display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours
    • Authoritarianism: asserting absolute authority and control and demanding unquestioned obedience from subordinates
    • Narcissism: an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority
    • Self-promotion: over-confident, manipulative and controlling
    • Unpredictability: erratic behaviour, emotional outbursts, inconsistent and poor judgments.
  1. Followers of toxic leaders are characterised as:
    • Conformers: who may lack self-worth or conviction and passively submit to a toxic leadership style, or
    • Colluders: who align their interests and goals with a toxic leader to benefit from the opportunities created by his or her success.
  1. A toxic environment is characterised by:
    • Fear: workers feel under constant threat and lack the courage to confront issues or their leaders
    • Silence: people withhold their thoughts and opinions and refrain from questioning or challenging ideas, processes or initiatives
    • Hierarchy: status, job titles and reporting lines define the pecking order
    • In and out groups: silos form of teams with and without power to influence, unwritten rules emerge and favouritism is rife
    • Absence of trust: micromanagement is pervasive, decisions on almost everything come from the top
    • No discretionary effort: workers perform to their job description, and no more
    • Lack of innovation: ideation is stifled by low risk-tolerance, no recognition or incentive exists for creativity and the emphasis is on self-preservation.

If you have ever described a workplace you know as having a toxic culture, it will have had elements of all three of the above. Therefore, to transform a toxic culture, a multi-dimensional approach is required:

  • Leaders should be assessed independently and by 360 degree evaluations to determine their leadership strengths and potential derailers.
  • Followers should receive training and open communication channels to enable them to identify toxic behaviours and develop strategies to deal with them.
  • A culture audit should be undertaken engaging HR, cross-sectional focus groups and independent parties to define the current and desired organisational culture as well as a transformational program to achieve it.

Recognising the interactive role of the three aspects of the toxic triangle and channelling efforts to all three is a fundamental necessity to achieving progress toward a thriving, healthy organisation.



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