Sea Services Leadership Association

JWLS Virtual Series Highlights Building Resilience in the Face of Toxic Leadership

While they represented a variety of services and job fields, backgrounds and demographics, the nearly 250 viewers of a recent Sea Services Leadership Association webinar agreed nearly universally on one thing: over the course of their career, they had worked for a toxic leader or had been involved in a toxic leadership environment.

Just as significantly, of those who had worked under a toxic leader, four out of five of their organizations did not fix the problem (or were perhaps even unaware there was a problem at all.)

SSLA tackled this critical topic – and how to build resilience in the face of toxic leadership – during a recent webinar featuring retired Rear Adm. Jan Hamby, who served in the U.S. Navy for more than 30 years, including as the Department of Defense’s deputy chief information officer.

The webinar was part of SSLA’s inaugural Joint Women’s Leadership Virtual Series, a twelve-session webinar program providing professional development learning opportunities for military servicewomen and veterans.

Dr. Hamby drew from her Navy and corporate leadership experiences and her doctoral research into the topic to share some key insights. First, she noted, toxic leadership is extremely widespread. Second, it has real impacts to our work performance and our own well-being.

Hamby explained toxic leadership environments are composed of three key components: a deliberately toxic or incompetent leader, an environment that is permissive to this leader, and followers who don’t have the right coping skills to deal with that leader or environment. When this “toxic triangle” emerges, whether in the military, the corporate world or in academia, it creates situations that are horrible for individuals and equally bad for the organization.

“If you have a toxic leader and a toxic leadership environment, you do get improved personnel compliance…so you can see why toxic leadership might be tolerated,” explained Hamby. “The problem is that these impacts tend to be very short-lived. Over time, folks who are dealing with this environment or living within it find that their own internal, emotional, mental, and even physical resources are degraded. We see people throwing in the towel and just going along with the toxic leaders. We may see things like ethical lapses where they are willing to take shortcuts, or actual fraudulent actions in order to deliver the kind of results that the toxic leader is demanding from them.”

Hamby also emphasized that toxic leadership environments also prevent followers from contributing positively to the organization.
“No one is willing to take a risk to step out and offer new ideas. No one is willing to step out and offer to helps someone else, because in that process, they may draw negative attention and negative energy to themselves…You’re going to see capacity and capability of that organization drop. That domino effect of toxic leadership, and the impact on how employees and personnel behave, has long-lasting effects.”

Even worse, Hamby acknowledges that removing or attempting to rehabilitate toxic leaders is a “futile endeavor.”
“There are so many toxic leaders out there,” said Hamby. “Eradicating the immediate toxic leader only gives you a short-term reprieve…In the majority of cases, they will quietly move that person into a different position, because they don’t want to hurt their careers.”

So what can be done to combat toxic leadership? Hamby recommends removing one leg of the toxic triangle: reduce follower susceptibility – and build resilience.

“When you work on reducing follower susceptibility to toxic leadership, you are also building follower ability to cope with many other kinds of stressful environments. This is a ‘two-for’: you help them reduce their chance that they will adopt negative behaviors because of toxic leadership, and you enhance their ability to perform well in lots of other stressful environments.”

Hamby outlined three keys to building this resilience, what she calls a “vaccine” to toxic leadership:

  1. Demonstrate competence. “It has a lesser contribution to resilience, but it is by far and above the easiest characteristic to develop in ourselves, and within our people, and it simply boils down to making sure that your people have the opportunity to get the kind of training that they need for their work.” This training also includes philosophical topics and leadership lessons; Hamby suggests mentorship groups and setting aside time during the day where people can concentrate on focused training.
  2. Self-regulate. “Have discipline to do the things you know you need to do to be ready…this really does help a person mitigate the amount of resources that they spend in coping with a stressor.” One of the easiest approaches is to do repeated drills so when an emergency comes, you do what is needed in that moment. Drills can even be reciting, daily, your organization’s values or the plan of the day. Additionally, give your people responsibility and accountability to help them grow.
  3. Build self-awareness. “Have a self-knowledge about who you are, what you stand for and an ability to remove your own observation of a situation from looking at it from only your perspective…this characteristic is the one that contributes the most to an individual’s ability to retain their own internal resources to cope, in positive fashions, when they’re faced with stress.” Researchers agree that those who learn mindfulness techniques say they feel less stress and can think more clearly. Hamby recommended using guided meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace or finding a mindfulness coach who can help build resilience or work through issues like stress or trauma.

Building resilience, stressed Hamby, “is the first step in building the critical mass that is needed to allow people to come forward…to be willing to speak up and out against toxic leaders, we need to start with building people up to the point where they actually have the ability to do that.”

Watch this webinar, “Resilience in the Face of Toxic Leadership: Taking Care of Your People and Yourself,” on SSLA’s YouTube page

To participate in future JWLS Virtual Series events, view the full schedule here and join the conversation on SSLA’s Facebook page.



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