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Toxicity in Education

When I wrote Trust in Education, I was writing about good leadership, ways that good leaders can build a great culture and empower their staff to be better. This article is about something that is in many ways the polar opposite – the Toxic Triangle, which can exist in all organisations.

The Toxic Triangle

Toxic leaders, as defined by Jean Lipman-Blumen in Toxic Leadership: A Conceptual Framework (2005), are leaders who:

by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean. (2005). Toxic Leadership: A Conceptual Framework 1.

They become influential when their characteristics are tolerated in environments that are conducive to their behaviours and followed by susceptible followers who either collude or conform to the environment, as shown in the image above.

These environments usually have a high employee turnover, which leaders may dismiss as the result of the people being “unable to cope with the high-performance culture” or a similar justification for their leadership.

Unfortunately, toxic leaders are often unaware of their toxicity because they lack self-awareness. They have a high-level of self-orientation and are primarily focused on their own personal ambitions. They treat the organisations that they lead and the people within them as a vehicle to get them to where they want to be. They are happy to use positional power to deceive, intimidate and coerce people to achieve their desired results.

Padilla, Hogan & Kaiser identify 6 characteristics of a toxic leader in The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.

1) Autocratic Leaders, who impose their will without considering the ideas and opinions from those in their team. They focus on maintaining control and are generally intolerant of mistakes, after all, they wouldn’t make these mistakes. This leads to a lack of trust in their subordinates, which results in a lack of delegation and top-down communication that is very directive.

Where delegation does occur, it is usually jobs that they don’t want to do, delegation is a way of making their lives easier rather than developing their team members.

2) Narcissistic Leaders, who have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They believe that they are special in some way and have an excessive need for admiration from other people, yet lack any empathy when dealing with others.

Coupled with a level of arrogance that only serves themselves, they are more interested in personal success and gain than in any long-term growth of the organisations that they work in. Development on their staff is low on the agenda because they lack emotional intelligence and are disinterested in the needs of their subordinates. They will often seek to take on responsibilities if they feel that it improves the image that they have of themselves.

3) Manipulative Leaders, who abuse their position and organisational systems for their own gain. They foster relationships with people that they can use to further their own ends, justifying their abuse of these relationships as being purely business and nothing personal.

4) Intimidating Leaders, who bully their subordinates – ruling with an iron fist. They foster a culture of fear and usually find that their subordinates will avoid them unless forced to spend time with them. They are rarely challenged or offered ideas as ridicule or anger is a likely response. They don’t care if they are popular or not.

5) Overly Competitive Leaders, who have a win at all costs attitude, which means they are quick to make decisions and rarely have time to listen to the input of their subordinates. They believe that they have high standards and are inspiring leaders, but they usually leave a trail of broken subordinates who have failed to keep up with their pace. Being unethical to win is perfectly acceptable in their eyes.

6) Discriminatory Leaders, who surround themselves with people who don’t challenge their point of view. They like to be told exactly what they want to hear.

Toxic leaders tend to have more than one of these characteristics, very few of them are purely one. There might be a primary characteristic with several secondary characteristics. Because they tend to pursue short term gains, getting what they can out of a situation, they often have short-term impacts and successes.

Examples of this include autocratic leaders, who can take charge of emergency situations and coordinate responses, or narcissistic leaders, who are able to act decisively and dispassionately, they are unaffected by the effects of their actions.

However, toxic leaders cannot thrive without the other two elements of the toxic triangle.

The second element of the triangle is the conducive environment. Toxic leaders thrive where this environment already exists, or they seek to create these types of environments. I have already mentioned that Autocratic leaders and Narcissistic leaders thrive where there instability.

Where there is instability, staff accept that decisive action needs to be taken to remove the instability and get the ship back on an even keel. They relinquish control of virtually all decision-making to allow rapid, unilateral decisions. Quick decisions result in decisive actions which return stability.

However, the toxic leader doesn’t relinquish the control that they have seized, instead, they allow their staff to believe that the school is under attack from outside influence. In education this is not difficult to do, OFSTED is the perfect bogey man for a school that has been in crisis. It is also a technique that is recognised as being effective in encouraging people to change their past behaviour. Where there is a perceived threat, toxic leaders can justify their actions as being for the greater good and necessary to overcome these external pressures.

Toxic leaders will use the situations above to drive forward their values and standards through the culture that they develop to face the perceived threat that the school faces. This can be difficult to spot, because if the threat is real, then changes in culture are often necessary. The difference between necessary cultural change and the changes made by a toxic leader, however, can be identified by the way in which the standards are developed and upheld.

If the standards are put on the wall for all to see, but the behaviour of the leader and senior staff ignores these values and standards then there is an issue.

This can only happen if there is a lack of governance. If the school governors are either ineffective or even selected by the school leader, then oversight is likely to be lacking. Good governance requires leaders to go and speak to the staff and see what is happening in the school. Toxic leaders often place barriers that prevent governors from doing so.

Not all of the factors described above need to be in place, but where they are then toxic leadership can run unchecked.

The final pieces of the toxic jigsaw are susceptible followers. Toxic leaders require followers, of which there are two types – conformers and colluders.

Conformers are passive in response to toxic leadership, the lack the confidence to challenge authority and prefer the certainty that it provides, they follow the path of least resistance. Toxic leaders will often replace more experienced staff with NQTs and teachers with limited experience who don’t know any better.

Colluders are more proactive than conformers and will comply with or participate in the toxic leadership, they are ambitious and believe that by following the example of the leader that they will be successful, instead, they are often on the path to toxic leadership themselves. This often feeds the belief of Narcissistic leaders that they are inspirational and growing the next generation of leaders in their image.

There are, however, challenges with identifying toxic leadership in schools. I myself have difficulty in believing that anyone enters education with a desire to be toxic, it is a lack of self-awareness and a high level of self-orientation that can lead to this situation. Many toxic leaders may be unaware that they are toxic.

During a recent #BrewEd event in York, toxic leadership and toxic environments were discussed by a number of speakers. One suggestion for identifying toxic leadership was to look at the staff turnover rate, especially where staff are not leaving for promotions, but just getting out while they can.

Another piece of evidence suggested for toxic leadership was the level of controlling behaviours that were part of the monitoring of teachers. Learning walks, observations, book trawls etc. These in themselves are not toxic, but how they are used can be.

If you find yourself in a school that exhibits toxic leadership, start planning how you will get out. As someone who has been part of one, I am well aware that toxic leaders breed toxic cultures, where individual members either conform or collude and more toxic leaders are developed. I almost was one – you don’t want to be.

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