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Toxic Followership and What Can Be Done

Five key strategies to preventing the spread of toxic behaviors.

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Followership entails serving an organization, collaborating, and embracing the leadership’s vision. However, toxic followership is characterized by unethical behavior, manipulation, and failure to acclimate to the team, which is fueled by the absence of service, belonging, and trust. Often, toxic followership begins as a result of negative social interactions, which often leave people feeling slighted and undervalued.

Have you witnessed a person speaking poorly about colleagues or their leadership? When this occurs, whether or not there is any legitimacy in the grievance, the act of open criticism and contempt erodes trust, encourages negative perspectives, and ultimately weakens the team’s cohesion and effectiveness. Criticism and negativity can spread easily and have profound impacts on the team’s psychology. This makes it difficult for the team to focus on what makes them a cohesive unit, and by extension the organization effective. Often, as a result of toxic followership, negativity permeates throughout an organization undetected until there is a noticeable degradation in morale and a level of dysfunction difficult to extinguish.

I have found several strategies that help keep toxic followership at bay. First, leaders must take the time to explain the bigger picture to the team. Followers may not always understand the bigger picture, and leaders can lose sight while managing a myriad of personalities and navigating through political, social, and cultural domains. However, it is imperative the leader effectively explains the “why” of the bigger picture; this can mitigate toxic followers from subverting the team’s lines of efforts.

Second, leaders must set the conditions and foster a culture of open-mindedness. Most organizations have toxic people – that is sometimes unavoidable – but if the boss holistically ensures employees feel appreciated, valued, and acknowledges their opinion in the organization, those actions may foster cohesion and prevent negative thinking. For example, a leader that regularly gives everyone a voice is more likely to have the support of most team members and therefore prevent wildfire-like spread of negativity. Another example would be a leader preventing a divergent thinker from being misinterpreted as a cynic. The leader can tactfully encourage divergent thinking and simultaneously teach multiple principles of inclusion and teambuilding. This positioning will demonstrate to the employees how to leverage their coworkers’ best attributes to improve the organization’s performance.

A third example of how to counter negativity is to respond with positivity. This requires practice for those who are typically bystanders and avoid conflict. A leader must interject when an employee introduces negativity. For example, if an employee says, “She does not know what she is talking about,” the leader can politely redirect thinking and offer insight by replying, “I think what she was getting at...” This type of exchange, when done consistently, usually helps an employee with a negative disposition shift his or her perspective. Additionally, it sets the example and refocuses the group by reminding them of the overarching goals of the organization.

Fourth, it is important to create a culture where everyone in an organization feels responsible to uphold a standard. It is a best practice to communicate behavioral and cultural expectations in detail. For example, a leader can tell his team that there is zero tolerance for gossiping and speaking negatively about others. He can explain that negative comments may initially seem insignificant, but over time can have irreversible impacts. These actions can cultivate a self-managing culture and frame the right behaviors in the organization.

Finally, demonstrate loyalty to your team, leadership, and your organization’s mission. Keep “team” in your vocabulary during conversations and the focus will likely shift to what is best for the organization and not what is best for individuals. Negative employees lose influence when the team dismisses their destructive comments and thoughts. Remember, it is about the organization and not the individual! Conflicts and offenses are bound to happen in your career, but loyalty to the leadership and organization will keep you focused and prevent toxic followership.