Daniel Bauer

Feb 9, 2021

3 min read

Do I work for a toxic leader?

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

I started a new principal position at a local school in August.

Or at least, I had resigned from the position in my mind.

I officially handed in my resignation letter in January.

My supervisor laughed and said, “I didn’t think you’d resign so quickly.”

It was the easiest decision because I was in a toxic environment; my supervisor was a bully.

How did I know?

Words are one thing.

What people will tell you everything you need to know.

So why did I resign in my mind in October?

During a one-on-one with my supervisor, her tone had shifted from “You’re doing great, we’re so glad you’re here” to “I have deep concerns about your leadership.”


I have been (and continue to be) a high performer in every role I’ve had the privilege to work in. My history has decades of strong performance. Until this experience, I had never been “disciplined” or received a formal write-up.

Now that doesn’t mean I worked in a toxic environment, but . . .

All that changed in October when I started getting formal write-ups . And this continued until January.

Am I a perfect leader? Absolutely not! I have plenty to learn and make mistakes each day. But do my actions warrant a “deep concern” for my leadership?

I think this is why having a strong network outside of your workplace environment is key. They can help you be objective and help you see what you don’t see — addressing blind spots, or disconfirming any bogus feedback you might be receiving.

So one sign of a toxic work environment is that it is incongruent with reality.

Other signs of a toxic work environment you might look out for:

The meeting after the meeting.

When people meet to discuss what just happened at the meeting, this indicates a lack of trust and candor in the organization. If you can’ share your thoughts freely with everyone on the team, culture needs to be addressed.

Poor communication.

Ambiguous or constantly changing communication might indicate that there is trouble ahead. Assuming positive intent is a great place to start. This could be a blindspot for the leader who may need to grow in communication.

But it is possible they might be hiding something. This is the weakest indication of a toxic culture, but something to note.

People running out the door.

I was the third principal in four years. That should have been a warning sign for me and it served as a great learning lesson.

Lack of ownership and pointing fingers.

If problems are always someone else’s fault, that is indicative of a toxic culture. High performers accept ownership.

Unhealthy expectations.

I had invested a good amount of money in a personal trainer. My supervisor told me that she promoted work-life balance, but demanded I report to work at a time that a) conflicted with my scheduled training and b) was an abnormal request (I asked around and other principals didn’t have the same expectation).

Toxic cultures may expect that you’re connected to work 24–7, respond to emails within an hour, and do things that degrade your mental, physical, and emotional health.

A culture of discrimination.

Racist and sexist discrimination and other forms of prejudice are examples of toxic cultures. Healthy organizations create belonging, foster inclusive environments, and welcome all.

You don’t like who you’ve become.

Most importantly, if your closest friends, family, and peers offer feedback that you’ve changed and they don’t like who you’ve become, you’re in a toxic culture.

This kind of feedback can hurt and a sober self-assessment is warranted.

Finally, trust your gut. The leaders I support have deep inner wisdom. When ignored, this can lead to disastrous results. If you’re even asking questions about toxic leadership, you probably are working for a toxic leader. People don’t ask that question when working with leaders who support and care about them.