Skip to main content

“We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”

Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

As a reader of this blog, it’s very likely that you’re curious about the concept of healthy workplace cultures. You may even have read Bright Founder, Emma’s post, The Business of Cultivating Healthy Workplaces. Whether you are new to these conversations, or well-versed in the issues, it’s probably occurred to you that an organisation’s leaders can make, or break, the health of workplace culture. In order to harness the power of leaders to shape healthier cultures, we have to talk about:

– The relationship between leadership styles and workplace cultures

– The reality behind memes about ‘toxic leadership’, or ‘horrible bosses’

– The alternative – a model of healthy leadership.

So, in this piece we’ll unpack each of those points, with the intention of sparking real conversation about what it means to be a healthy or unhealthy leader, and why healthy leadership matters.

In his wildly influential Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek observed, “a boss has a title, a leader has the people”, nailing the way in which modern leadership requires more than an ability to pull rank, or simply manage processes.

Expectations and experiences of work are evolving in the face of global change and generational shifts. Increasingly workers look to their leaders not only for direction, but for inspiration, empowerment, and positive influence over organisational culture. Anyone who’s had a job, intuitively knows the experience of work can hinge on the approach of those at the top of the org chart – and there is growing research that backs up that intuition.

Recent polling by Gallup suggests that 75% of the reasons why workers voluntarily leave their jobs can be influenced by managers. This demonstrates the power that leaders hold to determine employee experience, both positively and negatively, and in ways that ultimately effect something as crucial to the business as turnover.

When we start to dig into the data specifically on people’s negative experiences of their leaders, things take a disturbing turn pretty fast. Within the past 5 years, research has demonstrated that:

– In 2019, 55% of UK workers had left jobs because of bad management[i]

– Exposure to a harmful leader results in lower job satisfaction, and reduced well-being among employees[ii]

– Poor managerial behaviours cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion annually in lost productivity[iii].

In summary, when leaders exert a malign influence on workplace culture, the effects can be devastating, showing up in the form of decreased productivity, high turnover, reputational damage, low morale and, crucially, harm to people’s physical and mental health.

So, what characterises the unhealthy leadership styles that can be so corrosive for organisations, and the people who work in them? Sometimes damaging leadership behaviours are all too-obvious, but not every unhealthy leader looks like the bullying tyrant from an office-based sitcom. If we’re on the lookout for harmful leadership behaviours (in others, or even in ourselves) there are four red flags that signal the need for change.

  1. Excessive control

A need for control over processes and/or people that stifles individuality, autonomy and creativity. Such leaders often micromanage and fail to trust their teams. They might be manipulative, using people as pawns for personal or organisational gain.

  1. Limited empathy

Limited empathy might present in the form of cruelty or aggression, but it might be evident in more subtle (but still damaging) behaviours such as disregard for the feelings and well-being of others, lack capacity for deep listening, or failure to include people.

  1. Poor use of feedback

This applies to feedback in both directions. An unhealthy leader might refuse to accept constructive criticism, dismiss other’s perspectives, and respond defensively to challenge. They might also be overly critical of others or fail to give honest and constructive feedback.

  1. Inconsistency

When leaders’ actions don’t align with their words, it quickly causes confusion and erodes trust.

Having established that the consequences of unhealthy leadership can be profound, the good news is that the same is true for the influence of the healthy leader. And, change is possible, both at the level of individual leaders, and whole organisations. A leader can transform their unhealthy behaviours through self-awareness and professional development, and organisations can promote healthy leadership through training, policies, and a culture of accountability.

At Bright, we work with organisations who are at the forefront of cultivating healthy leadership, as well as many that are at earlier stages of that journey, and this experience has shown us that there are four pillars of healthy leadership that every organisation can make integral to their culture:

  1. Authenticity

Healthy leaders practise authenticity by cultivating self-awareness, leaning into discomfort, being open, seeking and offering feedback, and using reflection. This in turn fosters psychological safety throughout the organisation.

  1. Empathy

Healthy leaders build cultures of care at work by modelling vulnerability, embodying encouragement and compassion, and showing up for difficult conversations.

  1. Inclusiveness

Healthy leaders promote belonging by knowing and managing their own biases, they walk their talk and treat people fairly, they are actively anti-oppressive in their approach and respectfully curious about the experiences of people who are different from them.

  1. Resilience

Healthy leaders show resilience through developing emotional literacy and demonstrating the need for self-care and setting boundaries (not by blocking feelings or fostering toxic positivity).

We can see that a leader’s style doesn’t just impact their bottom line—it shapes the lives of everyone who works for them. So, it’s only by spotting unhealthy leadership, and having a clear blueprint for healthy leadership, that we can build better, brighter workplaces for all of us.

To find out about our Healthy Leader programme and the four pillars of healthy leadership say [email protected]

[i] Workfront
[ii] University of Manchester Business School
[iii] Gallup