Working in an environment that drains your energy can minimise productivity and lead to anxiety. You fear something will blow up soon. You worry that you may mess up your next task, and your boss will yell at you. Not only that, but you believe a discussion will lead to disagreement with your peers, and then it’ll come back to you.

Standing up for yourself, sharing your beliefs, and speaking up are typically not options. People end up blaming themselves for being in this situation. You’re not alone; many people have gone through this experience. 

Though, you are not at fault here. A string of actions brought you to this place, and in most cases, it’s toxic leadership. The literature review published in The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Well-Being in 2020 analysed more than 100 research papers, books, and other resources. They found that toxic leadership results in bad organisational and employee outcomes such as psychological stress, low self-esteem etc.

To help you avoid such situations, we put together a list of telltale signs of toxic leadership and an unhealthy work environment.

Signs of Toxic Leadership 

Emphasis on Hierarchy and their Authority 

Most companies work in a hierarchical order. Undoubtedly, the leadership style will affect other structures within the company. 

A toxic leader uses their authority to push unfairness and certain violations towards their employees. Working under toxic leadership makes you feel unappreciated and incompetent, despite your hard work and dedication to your role. Your work is often turned down because of your boss’s ego and their inability to validate your results. 

If you work in a start-up company, it is common practice to work alongside your leader. You are already dealing with toxic leadership if they don’t hold themselves accountable for their mistakes and cannot see how you can contribute with your ideas. 

A Toolbox article discussed why the millennials are pressured to show their accomplishment sooner, based on an interview with Steve Koepp. Millennial-owned startups feel the need to succeed as soon as possible, so they put a lot of pressure on their employees. In a toxic start-up, your needs will be ignored, and you will feel burnt out.

Discrimination and Selectivity 

A very obvious sign that a place is under toxic leadership is the forming of groups. If you are new to a workplace, you will find that people have favourites. Co-workers have their own small gatherings within the workplace, managers favour certain people, and the boss hangs out with a few people that he trusts.

In this scheme, you must compromise something of yourself to fit in with any group. A place where you cannot be yourself and work does not come first is not a healthy place to work.  The fact that there are “groups” in the workplace is a red flag. 

From this, we can move on to larger notions of toxicity in the workplace. So, it is not only toxic leadership but also any kind of discrimination, lack of diversity, and lack of inclusive behaviour that causes an unequal and unfair treatment of the employees. 

A study by MIT Sloan based on Glassdoor reviews suggests that toxic leadership, therefore toxic culture, is characterised by five terms. These are: “disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cut-throat, and abusive”. 

Unpaid Overtime 

What’s another red flag in a new workplace? Unpaid overtime work!

If you signed the contract that says you will be working 8 hours per day and find yourself working more than twice a week, something is not right. Toxic leadership does not care about their employees’ extra hours. They make you work overtime and do not pay you for it. 

Working overtime is not necessarily bad. If you work overtime to get things done, that’s another story. However, it is a toxic workplace when you are made to work overtime as a “punishment” for not finishing your tasks or if you are frequently made to work overtime without pay.

An excellent example of what qualifies as a toxic workplace with toxic leadership: you work in a place where two minutes late after a lunch break is outrageous, but not when it’s ten to twelve hours of unpaid overtime every week. 

Unfair and Unrealistic Expectations

A toxic leadership bans failure because it prevents you from success. You are expected to be perfect at everything you do, regardless if it is your first try.  If you are not good at something you do, you will be given a hard time for it. You become discouraged and fearful to try something new, even if you believe it will be good for you or the company in the future. 

If you strictly obey your leader’s orders because of fear, you should be concerned about toxic leadership. 


Because toxic leaders are fixed on their idea, they fail to see how their leadership style affects their team’s creativity and communication. 

We mentioned the inability to speak up for yourself and share your opinion on different matters at work. This usually happens because of the pressure put on the employers to agree with everything their leader suggests, and there is no answer to the problem other than their own. 

When people are encouraged to say what they think, to share their take on different things, they bring out the best of themselves and put their best effort on the table. Toxic leadership does not allow this. What toxic leadership seeks are “yes people”—those who just agree with everything. They do not need people with original thoughts; they just need people who shake their heads to say yes to whatever their leader says. This culture is bound to fail.

Are You the Toxic Leader?

You do not become toxic consciously. Most people are not aware of having this quality. When you are too self-involved, you fail to see the effect you have on other people. Toxic leaders focus on their purpose, dismissing their employees’ struggles to get there.


Toxic leadership comes off as intimidating. If your employees are intimidated by you, there is something wrong there. Your team should feel free and close with you. Ultimately, you all have the same goal you are working for. If your team does not trust you and only sees you as their superior, you might be displaying toxic traits. Therefore, a little appreciation would be a long way.

Lack of Appreciation

As we said, being appreciated makes your employees’ productivity flow. No one wants to work in a place where you are only considered a robot. Your employees are human beings with their interests, issues, and lives. You are a good boss if you show some interest in what they are dealing with and are compassionate about their issues. This way, you will show that you care about what your employees are going through and that you are not only interested in what they can do for you. 


Do you trust your employees? Are you open to communicating with them? Are you dedicated to their professional development? Does your behaviour motivate your team? 

If you answered these questions with anything from “no”, “not really”, to “yeah sometimes…”, then it’s time for a bit of self-assessment.

Toxic leadership strives on the idea that their team will work well only under their supervision. As long as they are there to see what the team is doing, they will be fine. This is typical of a toxic leader who does not trust his people, which will come back to him like a boomerang. 


Working in a toxic workplace with toxic leadership is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. It has a deep impact on your productivity, mental health, and physical health. It hinders your professional development. 

You are working under toxic leadership if you dread meeting your superiors, being unable to fit in with your co-workers because of certain discrimination, working overtime, and always fearing what your boss has to say next. 

Studies show that toxic culture has been one reason for The Great Resignation, a trend where workers collectively quit their companies since the beginning of 2021. It is a fact that leaving your job is not easy, but working in a toxic workplace makes it easier to leave, and we finally see that happen. 

So, let’s be grateful we live in a time when people speak up and choose their wellness before anything else. 

About the author

EWOR is a school conceived by Europe’s top professors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. We educate and mentor young innovators to launch successful businesses.

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