Toxic Leadership: Protecting the Organisation from Toxic Leaders and Colluders

In the article entitled “What are the characteristics that define toxic leadership” we speculated about the nature of Zuma and whether he fits the mould of a toxic leader. In light of recent developments, it becomes hard not to admit that Zuma has the characteristics of a toxic leader of which the defining characteristic is the damage he has done to the South African economy (toxic leaders tend to harm over the long-term).


Toxic Leadership: Protecting the Organisation from Toxic Leaders and Colluders


Dr Paul Vorster (The Ethics Institute)

It is encouraging to see large proportions of the South African population standing against the cabinet reshuffle President Jacob Zuma implemented recently. In the article entitled “What are the characteristics that define toxic leadership” we speculated about the nature of Zuma and whether he fits the mould of a toxic leader. In light of recent developments, it becomes hard not to admit that Zuma has the characteristics of a toxic leader of which the defining characteristic is the damage he has done to the South African economy (toxic leaders tend to harm over the long-term).

It is therefore very encouraging to see people from diverse backgrounds stand against Zuma in the national anti-Zuma protests and put pressure on his cabinet. Unfortunately, however, the damage is done and South Africa’s economy has officially been downgraded to junk status. To make matters worse, the ruling ANC is in turmoil. This turmoil can be clearly seen in the public communications of the organisation, where its leadership lambasted Zuma directly after the cabinet reshuffle, only to apologise a week later. One wonders what went on behind closed doors and what lines in the sand were drawn by Zuma to regain the support of critics and fence-sitters in the ANC.

What has become evident to South African citizens is how difficult it is to eject a toxic leader once he or she is entrenched in a position of power. Zuma is indeed entrenched. In fact, one could go so far to say that he has never before had as much control over the ANC and the South African economy as he has now. Although there is negative public sentiment towards Zuma, this in itself is not enough to get him out of his entrenched position. In fact, it can be argued that by the time the negative effects of toxic leadership manifest, it’s already too late to do anything about it. If one considers the social and financial cost of Zuma’s leadership the point is further illustrated. For example, if he were to leave office now, would that undo the damage already done?

Cutting off the head off the snake raises more issues than it solves

Toxic leaders have a tendency to surround themselves with a power base of people who are easily controllable and/or share their values and/or destructive behavioural characteristics. Unfortunately, this means that if the toxic leader were to leave the organisation, that power base, composed of colluders and followers, would remain entrenched. The colluders may eventually seek to fill the power vacuum left by the toxic leader, which may further destabilise the organisation. Alternatively, they may simply continue to follow the mandate of the absent toxic leader, resulting in very little positive change in the organisation.

In contrast, the followers are left with a lack of structure and purpose. They may also come to realise that the promises made by the toxic leader will not be fulfilled. This can translate into open revolt, staff turnover, employee disengagement or a reinvigorated desire to follow colluders who have taken the place of the toxic leader.

Consequently, getting rid of the toxic leader doesn’t solve the whole problem. The ‘legacy’ of the leader also needs to be addressed. This legacy can take many forms including entrenched colluders and susceptible followers left behind in the organisation; the impact of decisions the leader has made in the past; policies and regulations the leader may have enacted during his/her term; reputational damage to the organisation; the entrenchment of a toxic organisational culture and climate; and depending on the level of the toxic leader, the corruption of the vision and mission of the organisation.

It is, therefore, evident that curing and organisation of an entrenched toxic leader is a difficult endeavour. It is, therefore, more productive and effective to proactively safeguard the organisation from toxic leader entrenchment.

Protecting organisations from toxic leaders

  1. 1.      Pre-employment screening processes and protecting the ‘back door’

As mentioned earlier, toxic leaders draw people into positions of power that share their values and vision and manipulate followers into their way of thinking. While the leader is in power, they will often replace individuals with high moral standing, or who do not support their agenda, with those that do. This is a type of favouritism the toxic leader enacts appointing people they can control or who share their values and vision. We refer to this as the ‘backdoor’ because more and more ‘bad apples’ (people with toxic or immoral characteristics) enter the organisation when the toxic leader is in charge. Effectively, the toxic leader opens the back door of the organisation for other dubious/destructive individuals to enter and entrench themselves. Consequently, the first step to protecting the organisation resides in good employee screening and selection practices for both prospective leaders and followers.

Unfortunately, individuals with toxic characteristics are able to manipulate a large number of pre-employment screening tools. For example, it is well understood that individuals with toxic characteristics do well in assessment centre activities such as leaderless group discussions (a technique where a group of candidates have to discuss and issue, or solve a problem, and are observed to determine who has leadership potential) and in the selection interview (they are socially adept and able to say the right things). These two techniques are therefore unwittingly biased towards individuals with toxic characteristics.

Additionally, numerous psychometric screening tools that claim to measure ‘integrity’ can also be easily manipulated by toxic individuals. Firstly, ‘integrity’ cannot be directly observed or measured, it is an internal construct that guides individual behaviour. Most integrity instruments ask about behaviour overtly (i.e., Have you stolen something before, do you think it is ok to be absent from work etc.). Overtly asking someone if they will engage in counterproductive work behaviour is a poor technique of measurement as most people, even those with a moral disposition, fake good on such instruments. The validity of instruments that claim to measure integrity directly should, therefore, be questioned.

Some organisations may make use of polygraph machines (lie detectors) while structured interviews with prospective candidates are conducted asking them questions about their conduct. It is important to understand that the polygraph is subjective and largely based on the experience of the polygraph practitioner (the same people tested by different polygraph practitioners often have widely varying results). Additionally, polygraphs often have a high false positive rate where honest people are branded as deceivers. This is partly because it is difficult to establish a baseline against which different individuals can be measured. Additionally, sociopaths/psychopaths often have very little physiological reactivity to questions asked in a polygraph (polygraphs measure physiological arousal to determine whether individuals use deception) and often pass the deception test, whereas people with high levels of physiological arousal often fail. 

Understanding what pre-selection tests avoid is important, but good psychometric instruments for pre-employment screening do exist. Often these instruments measure personality traits that are strongly linked to counterproductive work behaviour (behaviours that result in harming the organisation’s productivity) and not integrity. In this way, these instruments are capable of measuring risk behaviours indirectly by asking seemingly innocuous questions about day-to-day behaviour and generalising the results to high-risk behaviour, which greatly reduces faking on such instruments. 

Other valid methods involve using personality inventories to obtain a better understanding of the individual’s behavioural dynamics that can often be compared to the characteristics of toxic leaders. For example, being very high on Extraversion (sociable, dominant, excitement seeking), low on Conscientiousness (impulsive, risk-taking and global), and high on Openness to Experience (curious, stimulus seeking, and open) may indicate a higher degree of behavioural risk in the organisation when using a five-factor model of personality inventory.

These measurement techniques often provide an indication of a candidates behavioural risk. One such instrument is the Work-related Risk and Integrity Scale (WRISc), which uses personality to gauge behavioural risk in candidates across the toxic characteristics.

Another valid and reliable instrument for measuring psychopathy (a toxic characteristic) is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This 20-item checklist covers the major indicators of psychopathy and can be quickly implemented. Validity can be improved by making the instrument a 360-degree survey where people familiar with the individual being assessed completes the checklist on their behaviour thus garnering an ‘other’ perspective and reducing the impact of faking.

Non-psychometric techniques such as reference checking can also be valuable if used properly. In this regard, interviewing old acquaintances and colleagues, and not limiting interviews to references provided by the candidate could prove useful. It is also valuable to look for certain indicators while reference checking:

  • Are there gaps in the candidate’s employment history? These gaps could indicate periods where the individual has demonstrated toxic characteristics they do not want the prospective employer to know about. It may be more important to focus on what is left out of a candidate’s reference list than to focus on what is included.
  • At what level in the organisation, and in what department, do the references work? Did the candidate reference direct reports or people in other departments who did not directly interact with them? Are there important references missing such as the CEO of the company or a direct supervisor/manager?  Were the candidates’ prior subordinates interviewed? Subordinates often have a very different perspective of an individual than superiors who often do not work with the candidate on a day-to-day basis.
  • Did references indicate that the candidate was selfish, arrogant or autocratic in nature? It is important to ask for a picture of the candidate’s leadership style in the past. Were they autocratic, arrogant, narcissistic, or overly competitive in nature? Were there people who were hurt by the candidate’s career ambitions? Did they demonstrate a lack of empathy or accomplish goals at the expense of others?

Another technique that can be used is a background check. Criminal activities or impulsive behaviours (such as living beyond one’s means) can all be indicators of impulsivity and a lack of delayed gratification (one of the many toxic characteristics), which can be easily picked up on a background check. If the individual has a criminal record, look at the severity of the transgression and what it was for. Fraudulent activities, implying deception, may be more worrisome than having a record for failing to pay traffic fines, for example.

The purpose of pre-selection techniques is to guard the organisations against individuals with toxic characteristics by preventing them from entering the organisation or progressing up the corporate ladder. In essence, it is ‘shutting the back door’ as tightly as possible. No pre-selection techniques are infallible, however, but they provide an important first line of defence against toxic individuals.

Pre-selection screening techniques also become more effective if they are used in combination with one another. For example, using a psychometric instrument to check for toxic behavioural traits, engaging in reference checking, and thoroughly investigating the individual’s background, all help to paint a complete picture of the individual’s character and behavioural tendencies and triangulate the candidate’s true nature.

It is important to remember that no single toxic characteristic makes a toxic leader, but a combination of them interacting in a specified manner. Additionally, factors outside the individual (the organisational environment) also interact with these traits to create an opportunity for the toxic leader to entrench their control and influence. It is therefore very important to have a thorough understanding of the organisation, its climate, and its people before selection decisions are made. These environmental elements should always be factored into the selection profile of prospective leaders to avoid situations where toxic leadership traits can interact freely with susceptible organisational contexts (i.e., a threatened organisation).

  1. 2.      Inoculating incumbents against the influence of toxic leaders

Zimbardo (2007), Darley and Latané (1968, 1970), Asch (1956, 1951), and Milgram (1963) all demonstrated the social forces that permeate organisations and can unduly influence followers overriding their judgement and moral decision-making. For a more in-depth overview of these forces please refer to the article entitled “Toxic Leadership: Characteristics of susceptible followers”.

By demonstrating the impact of these forces on decision-making and judgement, and generating awareness of how they can be used as methods of control, employees can more easily identify and resist them. Zimbardo (2007) has demonstrated how being aware of social forces and their dynamics allows individuals to overcome them relatively easily. A number of organisations in the audit and finance industries in South Africa are currently using such programmes to inoculate employees against these social forces improving the critical thinking capacity of incumbent employees and making them more difficult to control and manipulate.

  1. 3.      Generating an ethical organisational culture

Ashkanasy, Windsor and Trevino (2006) make use of an apple and barrel analogy to define how organisations operate in terms of ethics. Barrels refer to organisations, whereas apples refer to individuals. The ideal scenario is having a good barrel that contains good apples. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. A toxic leader (bad apple) can often spoil an entire barrel (organisation). They key is, therefore, to keep the bad apple from the good barrel.

Interestingly, good organisations that embody strong values and take ethics seriously are often not appealing to individuals with toxic characteristics. These organisations respect the individuality of employees, make decisions that benefit all stakeholders, value cooperation (not competition), are usually egalitarian and democratic, and seek mutual beneficence and synergy. Often these organisations have power and control decentralised amongst a number of leaders, which makes autocratic control by a single leader difficult. Additionally, these organisations also allow employees to disagree with organisational mandates and superiors and foster constructive debate on topics.

The following aspects can impede toxic individuals in organisations:

  • Celebrating individual identity (seeing people as individuals and not numbers or positions reinforces their humanity and reduces the effect of group apathy and conformity).
  • Using democratic or participative decision-making processes (allowing employees at any level to participate in decision-making and valuing their input).
  • Decentralised control (decentralising management systems and structures reduces the possibility that a single individual can take complete control of any system).
  • Celebrating cooperation, not competition (creating an environment where individuals need to collaborate to succeed helps to create mutual beneficence and make selfish individuals stand-out).
  • Allowing open communication (by allowing people to talk openly about aspects of their work allows for interaction and two-way communication between subordinates and superiors).


Although a number of interventions can be built to reduce the influx of toxic individuals into the organisation and impede their progression, a preventative focus is far more effective than trying to deal with an entrenched toxic leader after the fact. However, if an organisation already has an entrenched toxic leader in its ranks, it may be necessary to change the structure of the individual’s work so that it falls more in line with the positive organisational culture mentioned earlier in this article. Additionally, decentralising authority and power may also be beneficial and will hamper the impact of a toxic leader.

When dealing with an incumbent (entrenched) toxic leader creating a dual decision-making procedure for the leader appears to be the most effective technique. Toxic leaders strive for complete autocratic control of people and systems and they dislike having control and power taken from them. Dual decision-making is a process whereby another party has to agree with the decision of the leader before such decisions can be made in practice (essentially this is a decentralisation of power). This process essentially splits the decision-making power of the toxic leader in half. Although such a process is resource intensive (because other people have to essentially take on the same role as the toxic leader and make decisions on their behalf) sharing power with other individuals is not appealing to toxic leaders and greatly reduces their influence in organisations.

In terms of human resource decisions, it becomes critical that toxic leaders are not placed in a position where they can make executive decisions regarding the selection of new employees or the promotion of incumbents. As mentioned earlier toxic leaders have a tendency to draw other toxic individuals into their sphere of influence (the back door). Colluders are the most problematic in this regard. It is, therefore, critical that selection and promotion decisions rest with a selection board, or that the toxic leader has very little decision-making power in terms of promotion and selection decisions.  




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Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology67, 371-378.

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly18, 176-194.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.