Guest Blog: Vicki Webster talks Toxic Leadership

Left Field invited Vicki Webster to join us this week for a guest blog...

Can I have a relationship with a Toxic Leader?

Guest Blogger, Vicki Webster tells us. Vicki is currently undertaking PhD research into the Dark Side of Leadership, School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University

What motivated you to explore toxic leadership in the workplace? 

It is a prevalent issue that neither victims nor organisations seem to know how to deal with effectively.  Historically I worked as a court reporter in the criminal courts, so had an interest in the law and deviant behaviour.  Later in my career I became an organisational psychologist.  The study of toxic leadership and its negative impact on others is an intersect of the two interests.

What were the most compelling outcomes of your research? 
Even one toxic behaviour, demonstrated consistently over time by a leader, can cause significant emotional or psychological harm for followers, and if sustained may ultimately lead to physical harm, i.e. gastric upsets, hair loss, skin rashes, insomnia. 
Although the research consistently shows active coping is more adaptive when dealing with a stressor, victims of toxic leadership choose avoidance coping, (i.e. avoiding thinking about the abuse, avoiding interaction with the toxic leader), which provides short term relief from emotional and psychological distress.  Therefore, in the context of abusive supervision avoidance coping may be adaptive, because active coping, such as challenging the leader or calling their behaviour, is likely to lead to adverse personal and career consequences. 

For a discussion on this research go to:
Is it possible to have positive working relationships with a toxic leader? If one of our readers is currently working with a toxic leader, what practical strategies would you advise they implement to manage the relationship? 

If you are a resilient individual it is possible to have a professional relationship with a toxic leader for a short period (up to 12 months).  However, inevitably as you work with a toxic leader trust and engagement are eroded, which can lead to self doubt and lack of motivation.  If you are viewed as a threat your career may also be sabotaged.

To manage the relationship in a way that protects your career ensure you deliver the outcomes and goals that are important to the toxic leader, make sure you receive credit for your achievements and the work you do, document directives and agreements, pay attention to politics and rumours, and ensure you have a group of supportive colleagues you can trust. at is one key message you would like to impart to Left Fielders from your personal experience and research regarding toxic leadership in the workplace? 

If you cannot challenge the leader on their  toxic behaviour, if they appear unaware of their impact or unwilling to change, and/or the organisation is not prepared to take action, plan your escape carefully and remove yourself from the situation as soon as feasible.  Seeking the advice of an experienced career coach may assist you with this.

What is next for you in the world of toxic leadership? 

As part of my research I conducted and evaluated a short training intervention to build followers’ resilience in the context of toxic leadership.  My research demonstrated an increase in psychological and emotional well-being over a three month period post training session.  It will be important to replicate these findings over a longer time period and across industry sectors.