The leader-follower relationship is the singular most important relationship in any organization, especially if that organization claims to prioritize company culture. A positive leader is one who is uplifting and supportive, who doesn’t need a scapegoat every time something minor goes wrong. They’re quick to forgive, and slow to punish, and the entire team feels as though their best interests are taken to heart by their leader. Great followers go the extra mile, are reliable, honest, and loyal. Now, what can happen when the needs of leaders or followers aren’t met, and how toxic can a sour leader-follower relationship be to an organization as a whole?

Let’s take a look at a company we worked with in the past. Some of their leadership did not care about the relationship with their followers. People were anxious about going into work out of fear that they might do something wrong, get their head torn off, and potentially end up losing their job. Now you have a company culture which intrinsically ties productivity with fear, which does not make for a loyal follower-base, or a particularly “well-oiled” machine. What it does create is a culture of “every person for themselves”. Why would I help someone else with their workload when it could put my job at risk if I get behind?

Why do we still have these issues despite all of the research and training available for leaders? For starters, it very much has to do with leaders thinking that they need to be a real tough cookie in order to be obeyed, and will often confuse fear and respect. The excuse many times is that they are passionate.  These are frequently the same managers who almost exclusively exert positional power and don’t recognize people’s individual efforts. Often times, organizations can have systemic issues in leadership as well, where toxic leaders will seek others with similar toxic traits to promote to other leadership positions.  On top of that, as long as the leader is performing and getting results, and even though it is well known that they are toxic, nothing is done to rein them in.

As a follower, what do you do?  As with all relationships, it is a two-way street, and as a follower, you have to identify whether your relationship with your organization’s leadership is productive or non-productive. If the relationship is productive and you feel supported on all sides, congratulations! If not, you have a couple of strategies to consider. First, figure out if there’s something you can do to transform the relationship into something productive. You can do this through learning more about your leader – what makes them tick? Why are they so difficult? Is it a problem with the individual or with the company as a whole? Also, are you a good follower?  Do you have your leader’s back?  Once you’ve identified the root of the problem, make like a dentist and start drilling until all the toxicity has been drained, which includes some introspection on the role you play in the quality of the relationship.  In many cases, it can be near-impossible to fix a toxic leader-follower relationship, especially if it’s a systemic issue within the organization. If that’s the case, then it’s time to move on to strategy number two: the exit strategy.

The exit strategy shouldn’t be rushed into if you’re working in an organization that you truly admire – maybe it’s the mission statement, the product, or some of the perks. But here’s the issue with staying: if you work in a toxic environment for too long, and suffer in silence, it will have an adverse effect on your mental and physical health. At the end of the day, all we want is to be happy, and if we spend the majority of our life at a place that’s draining our soul for a leader who only cares about themselves, it’s probably in your best interest to find somewhere that will support you personally and professionally, no matter your role or level in the organization. Again, you have to also figure out if your misery is of your own making as moving won’t change that problem.

So, as you can see from this example, we have an organization that’s filled with people who don’t seem to care about their jobs, and thus, have a toxic work culture, predicated on poor leadership or poor followership. The toxicity flows downwards, sideways, and upwards and truly stagnates, so let’s start investing in our leader-follower relationship collectively and watch as the company culture improves.