May 22, 2024
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Guest commentary: A threat to organizational success: The unseen impact of enablers in toxic leadership

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By Vlad Vaiman 

Toxic leadership can do significant harm to organizations, resulting in a tarnished work climate and eventual stagnation or failure. 

While the spotlight is frequently focused on the toxic leader, it is critical to investigate the enablers who encourage and perpetuate this conduct.

These facilitators, typically in vice president or equivalent positions, play a critical role in supporting and cultivating toxic leadership, causing ripple effects that can destroy an organization’s foundation, jeopardizing its sustainability and future success.

Enablers are those inside an organization who, either knowingly or accidentally, empower toxic leaders and typically hold positions of authority or influence, serving as liaisons between the leader and the rest of the organization. 

Their actions — or inactions — can reinforce the toxic behavior, providing a buffer that permits toxic leaders to continue their damaging activities.

These enablers can maintain this harmful leadership through a variety of means. 

First, enablers show steadfast allegiance by recognizing a toxic leader’s authority, even if it means supporting destructive policies or ignoring unethical behavior. 

This type of blind loyalty might deter others from questioning or challenging the leader’s decisions, resulting in the repression of dissent. When criticism is suppressed, a closed environment emerges in which poisonous leaders can operate without responsibility.

Furthermore, enablers may assist toxic leaders in isolating and sometimes outright punishing individuals who disagree, causing a schism within the company. 

This separation can create a fear-based culture in which employees are hesitant to speak up or discuss their problems. 

In such an environment, authoritarian decision-making methods are frequently used, undermining shared governance and collaborative efforts. 

These actions strengthen the toxic leader’s influence, diminishing the potential of significant reform.  

The function of enablers in promoting toxic leadership has far-reaching consequences for an organization’s health and prosperity. 

Their actions can have a wide range of negative consequences, affecting employee morale, corporate culture, and, ultimately, the organization’s long-term viability. 

One of the most direct repercussions of toxic leadership, fostered by enablers, is employee demoralization. 

When employees feel disrespected and devalued, they may seek other alternatives, resulting in high turnover and the loss of important talent. 

This turnover not only disrupts the organization’s operations but also depletes the workforce and reduces institutional knowledge, compromising the organization’s ability to sustain continuity and stability.  

In addition to the loss of talent, the existence of enablers can undermine the organization’s essential values and beliefs. 

A culture of fear and obedience that undermines intellectual freedom, shared governance, and ethical norms impairs the organization’s ability to innovate and adapt. 

Employees may become distrustful of the organization if ideals are eroded. 

A poisonous environment created by enablers also reduces the capacity for creativity and innovation. 

 When dissent is suppressed and collaboration is discouraged, the organization faces stagnation, unable to develop or meet new challenges. 

This stagnation can eventually lead to a loss of competitiveness and relevance, as the organization becomes less responsive to market realities and unable to attract top people.

Enablers who support toxic leadership often facilitate decisions that prioritize short-term gains over long-term stability. 

This can lead, for example, to financial mismanagement, with reduced resources for critical functions such as those related to core business or employee development. 

The focus on immediate financial benefits at the expense of long-term sustainability can create significant challenges for an organization, limiting its ability to invest in growth and development.  

Additionally, the disregard for labor regulations and other legal requirements can expose the organization to costly lawsuits and reputational damage, further undermining its sustainability. 

When toxic leaders and their enablers ignore legal obligations, the organization becomes vulnerable to legal challenges that can have lasting financial and reputational consequences. 

This disregard for regulations not only threatens the organization’s stability but also raises questions about its commitment to ethical practices.

To mitigate the negative impact of toxic leadership and its enablers, organizations must take proactive steps to address the underlying issues. 

A critical first step is ensuring accountability and transparency at all levels. 

Organizations should implement mechanisms that promote open communication and encourage feedback from employees without fear of retaliation.

 By fostering a culture of transparency, organizations can begin to break the cycle of authoritarian practices and create an environment where employees feel valued and heard.  

Empowering employees to participate in decision-making processes and promoting a culture of inclusion can further help address the toxic leadership issue. 

By encouraging collaboration and shared governance, organizations can create a more inclusive work environment, reducing the influence of enablers and promoting a healthier organizational culture.

Investing in leadership development programs that emphasize ethical practices and shared governance is another essential step.

These programs can help prevent the emergence of toxic leaders and enablers by focusing on developing leaders who demonstrate empathy, integrity, and a commitment to the organization’s values. 

By prioritizing ethical leadership, organizations can cultivate a culture that supports innovation and growth.  

Additionally, regular and more importantly, transparent, reevaluation of leadership positions and responsibilities can ensure that those in power align with the organization’s goals and values. 

This approach provides an opportunity to correct course and address any signs of toxic leadership early on, allowing the organization to remain adaptable and responsive to changing needs.

To summarize, enablers of toxic leaders play a significant role in the deterioration of organizational health, leading to demoralization, financial instability, and a compromised culture. 

Addressing this issue requires a concerted effort to promote accountability, empower employees, and develop ethical leadership practices. 

By taking these steps, organizations can create a positive work environment that fosters innovation, inclusivity, and long-term prosperity.

Vlad Vaiman is a Professor and Associate Dean at the Cal Lutheran School of Management. He can be reached at vvaiman@callutheran.edu.