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Taking on the Toxic Triangle

How to disrupt a system of destructive leadership.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Working in today’s world has become a decidedly different experience. As the myriad challenges keep piling on—COVID-19, working from home, civil injustice, economic uncertainty—leaders are called more than ever to foster conditions that allow their workforce to feel productive, safe, and engaged. Whether you are working remotely or in person, this heavy period of time demands highly respectful work environments where relationships are healthy, people with diverse perspectives feel heard and empowered, and bad behavior is not only deemed unacceptable but quickly addressed when it occurs.

Still, exposure to behavior that is described as abusive or bullying in the workplace continues to rise, with the majority of such experiences coming from those in leadership positions. Not only is the cost of such behavior upwards of $24 billion annually due to lost productivity and an increase in healthcare costs, destructive leadership has no place in a world deeply in need of stability, clarity, and healing.

Amidst this backdrop of social unrest, today’s workforce, and society at large, is less tolerant than ever of disrespectful behavior, particularly as millennials have become the largest population segment holding full-time jobs (Pew Research Center, 2018). My research on the topic of destructive leadership has shown that millennials are more willing to demand fairness, less willing to stay in a workplace that doesn’t provide it, and more likely to jump ship quickly, whether or not they have a new job lined up. So, what could stand in the way of making this a turning point in workplace culture?

The Toxic Triangle, a perfect storm created by three factors: a destructive leader, susceptible followers, and a conducive environment.

Destructive Leadership

So often when we observe destructive leadership — that is, abusive, bullying, or toxic leadership behaviors that undermine the effectiveness of the organization and people within — we focus primarily on the behaviors of the “bad” leaders themselves. This leader-centric approach paves a narrow path for intervention, marginalizing other variables in the full system in which these leaders operate.

It is easy to understand why people stick around for positive leaders, even when the going gets tough. But why follow a leader that you know is toxic? Why not simply walk away?

The short answer is that if you’ve ever been in the swirl of a toxic triangle, you may not have recognized your role. For destructive leaders to stay in power, psychologists have found it is necessary to also have the presence of followers who don’t challenge them and an environment conducive to their behavior. With this broader view of how a destructive leader is able to function and sustain their position over an extended period of time, we can more readily intervene to dismantle the structures that enable them and empower the people who follow them.

Susceptible Followers

For the toxic triangle to work requires followers, which are generally grouped into one of two categories: colluders and conformers. Colluders tend to mimic the bad behavior of their bosses because they benefit from the power it gives them and the (often fleeting) favor they receive.

Conformers, on the other hand, are motivated more out of fear than power. Their focus is on staying off the radar, protecting their job, just doing what is asked, not rocking the boat. Regardless of their motivation, both of these follower types play a significant role in contributing to the sustained power of a destructive leader.

Conducive Environment

Almost without exception, when I am working with an organization that has identified potential toxic leadership, someone says to me, “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, you know?” Many things have to line up for the triangle to be complete: a lack of internal and external checks and balances on these leaders; weak oversight and governance; unclear ethical standards; and a scarcity of intervention mechanisms for those being abused.

All of these contribute to environments that perpetuate destructive leadership. And make no mistake — this is not something that only happens at the top of the corporate ladder… it occurs at all levels of leadership, from C-suite executives to front-line managers. When an organization lacks the oversight and feedback structures that provide visibility from above and a cry for help from below, the end result can be the same — an environment in which toxicity breeds and festers.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing examples of a toxic triangle at work involves USA Gymnastics. In 2018, Larry Nassar, the doctor for the Team USA ladies’ gymnastics program (who was also employed by Michigan State), was sentenced to prison for sexual assault against minors. A mind-boggling 250 girls/women have come forward — with 150 of them giving victim impact statements at his sentencing hearing — accusing him of sexual abuse committed between 1992 and 2015 under the guise of “medical treatment,” sometimes with a completely unaware parent in the room. How could a man commit such atrocities for more than two decades without getting caught? In a nutshell, he wasn’t alone.

Nassar was part of a systemic culture that — in addition to starvation and sexual assault — allowed and to some extent, encouraged the mental, verbal, and sometimes physical abuse of young female athletes. As portrayed in a recent Netflix documentary, Athlete A, the brave first whistleblower, Maggie Nichols, was essentially blackballed from the sport, being deprived of a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, even after winning medals at the 2015 nationals (silver all-around), and 2015 world championships (team gold and individual bronze in floor exercise).

Nichols reported the abuse while at the Karolyi Ranch, run by infamous coaches Bela and Márta Karolyi. Yet even while it was being run up the flagpole to the head of USA Gymnastics, it was simultaneously being swept under the rug — with colluders at all levels of the organization. You could argue that Nassar wasn’t the only destructive leader in the system. And unwittingly, these elite young athletes were conformers — being coerced by most of the adults in their lives to do whatever it took to get the glory of the medal.

The harm from destructive leaders is not always as visible or physical as it was in the case of these gymnasts, but the damage can be just as deep and long-lasting. Our current uncertain and unpredictable economic and societal conditions bring financial pressure associated with declining business. These macro conditions can exacerbate an environment conducive to toxic behavior, which can bring out the worst in people — leaders and followers, alike. Along with the angst felt after months of confinement and daily doses of anger and intolerance in the media, many people are clinging to their jobs for fear of not finding anything else for the foreseeable future. The three factors of the toxic triangle are more intensely present, making it more difficult than ever for many to break out of a destructive situation.

Taking on the Toxic Triangle

The thing is, if you are suffering, you are likely not alone. Thanks to cultural shifts being driven by millennials who are simply less apt to accept poor leadership, each of us has an opportunity to turn the tide. With enough momentum, even the most committed collaborators will cave in to a movement against oppression.

Consider the power structure of the USA Gymnastics organization at the time of Maggie Nichols’ courageous reporting of the actual situation. Those who collaborated with the system no doubt felt they were acting in service of sustaining a respected organization. But once Maggie opened the door, dozens of other victims broke out of the pattern of conformity and found their voices. Eventually, even some of the most ardent colluders abandoned their support of Larry Nassar and the system that enabled his behavior.

So what can you do if you are a leader in an organization and suspect a tolerance for destructive leadership, or if you work for someone who is toxic? As a leader:

  • Establish ethical standards for your workplace, and do not tolerate any deviations.
  • Clarify expectations explicitly on what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t.
  • Create a culture of transparency and make it desirable to call out toxic behavior.
  • Ensure that there are safe support structures in place for employees to use when they feel threatened.
  • Build awareness in your leaders through self-discovery and coaching to shine a light on how their leadership is being experienced.
  • Hire the right leaders to begin with.

In a shelter-in-place environment, it starts with connection. Have a regular weekly call for the sole purpose of checking in with people. Providing a sacred space for relationship building allows people not only to connect but to do so with authenticity. And it might just raise a flag on an issue you didn’t realize existed.

If you work for someone who is toxic, my advice has evolved over the past few years. Before, my first line of inquiry would have been to heavily explore the option of leaving your position and/or company. Now, as I see the social dynamics changing in and outside of the workplace, I believe your voice has never been more valued and the imperative for those in power to listen, never stronger. Ask yourself:

  • Where do you find solidarity? Not with would-be “victims” but with others willing to take agency in the interest of change.
  • What are the potential benefits of taking agency and finding an ear who will listen and drive change (versus only seeing the downside of what might happen)?
  • As difficult as it might be to see, what, if anything, are you doing to contribute to the situation?

Perhaps most importantly, what would happen if you said something today, and what is at stake if you don’t?


Tepper, B.J. (June 2007). Journal of Management. Abusive Supervision in Work Organizations: Review, Synthesis, and Research, Vol 33 no. 3 P261-289.

Agarwal, Dr. Pragya (2018). Forbes. Here is Why We Need to Talk About Bullying in the Work Place.

Fry, Richard. (2018). Pew Research Center. Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.

Gajanan, Mahita. (2020). Time. The Story Behind Netflix's Athlete A, a New Documentary About the USA Gymnastics Sex Abuse Scandal.

Wise, Mike. (2018). The Undefeated. Why aren’t Nassar’s enablers going to prison too? A culture of denial allowed girls to be abused.

Stiernberg, Bonnie. (2020). Inside Hook. USA Gymnastics' Culture of Abuse Runs Far Deeper Than Larry Nassar.