Toxic Leadership

 Recommended Read: Toxic Staff 

If toxic staff is 1/2 of the conversation about what creates and perpetuates sick, dysfunctional work culture, then toxic leadership is definitely the other 1/2 of the conversation. You can't discuss one without discussing the other.

Unhealthy work demands, narcissistic managers, unrealistic productivity metrics, all of these contribute to the "revolving door" staffing issues that many, many ABA companies face.

Who is at the top? Who is getting promoted to the top (and who isn't)? And what characteristics and concerning behaviors do those in leadership consistently exhibit?

Examples? Sure:

Employees who sacrifice/neglect their OWN families to work long nights and weekends for clients are seen as “go getters” and “customer satisfaction focused”

A lot of hype and focus is placed on giving “110% every day”, with little discussion about how that is also the definition of burn out culture

Leadership decisions are not to be questioned. They are to be accepted. Questioning or disagreeing leads to the employee being seen as "insubordinate", "disrespectful", or "problematic"

“Hit the ground running” is a euphemism used to communicate the expectation that you will jump headfirst into a project or assignment and not bother anyone with questions, or requests for assistance

“Soft skills” like compassion, empathy, or person-centered treatment is retwisted as being “too soft”, “too emotional”, or just weak. You are encouraged to be firmer with clients, “convince” families of hours they don’t want, and project “confidence”


And on and on and on. 


Toxic leaders create and worsen toxic work cultures, resulting in staff who are timid, fearful for their jobs, indecisive/do not trust their ability to be a self-directed employee, and hesitant to provide constructive feedback. These are not fun places to work, and the work being produced typically reflects that.

Taking that a step further, what happens when people working in a field intended to help, support, coach, teach, or instruct vulnerable populations, is suffering under toxic leadership? What is the impact on quality of care and client outcomes? I don't think this is a question of "Will this affect the clients", but a question of "How will this affect the clients".

If the point of a leader in a company is to guide, instruct, and lead those under you, then following a toxic leader is like walking on a circular road that doesn't go anywhere. Its a pointless exercise in futility, and a good way to ignite a great resignation

In my latest book, 'The Practical ABA Practitioner', I talk at length about my experiences in this field working for toxic owners/managers. The way those experiences impacted my job satisfaction, my passion for Behavior Analysis, and my emotional and mental health (burnout, anyone?). My experience is not unique. Employees: talk to your colleagues. How many of them have sat under toxic leaders, and what impact did that have on them? Employers: talk to your team. How many of them view their current managers or supervisors as toxic, and how does that impact their day-to-day work?

Dangerous leaders are not just dangerous because of their pathological mindset and questionable behavior. They are dangerous because they expect the people under them to become like them. To focus on profits over people, to "hustle hard"/work until they drop, and to prioritize company health over their own mental health. 

When we examine the rates of position resignation in this field, as well as clinician burnout, how much of that is caused by toxic leadership? Many companies have systems and procedures in place that can actually encourage professional burnout. When employees feel isolated from colleagues and distant from ownership/management (silo mentality), or when unrealistic caseload expectations are presented as being non-optional, staff will try to rely on their smarts and training to get them through these challenges. But sometimes, it isn't the staff that needs to change, it's the system that needs to change.

 How well does the employer evaluate staff for signs of professional burnout? Are boundaries or guardrails put in place so that staff are not experiencing excessive driving, highly variable scheduling, regularly dealing with highly challenging consumers, or working 12 hour days 6-7 days a week? Does the work culture intentionally promote cooperation, teamwork, and open communication? Can staff  directly access management to voice complaints, or even just vent? Or, do staff know that complaining about people higher up than them will lead to swift retaliation? All of these issues can lead to staff who feel devalued and unappreciated on a regular basis.

It takes healthy, rested, emotionally stable people to perform the challenging work of supporting vulnerable populations through behavior analytic interventions in the community, home, and classroom. Toxic work cultures don't only impact your team, they also impact the very clients you are supposed to be helping.


** More Info:

Preventing Burnout 

Lipman-Blumen J. (2010) Toxic Leadership: A Conceptual Framework. In: Bournois F., Duval-Hamel J., Roussillon S., Scaringella JL. (eds) Handbook of Top Management Teams. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

What is Ethical Leadership?

Developing Leadership in Your ABA Team

Esquierdo-Leal, J.L., Houmanfar, R.A. Creating Inclusive and Equitable Cultural Practices by Linking Leadership to Systemic Change. Behav Analysis Practice 14, 499–512 (2021).

A New Model for Ethical Leadership 

No comments

Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top