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Filtering the Language of Toxic Leadership

Words have power. They can motivate, inspire, and build connections. But in the wrong hands, they can also demoralize, alienate, and create divisions. This is particularly true in leadership. The language leaders use can profoundly shape the work environment and influence the behavior, attitudes, and performance of their teams. Unfortunately, some leaders use toxic language that harms rather than helps. Recognizing and transforming this language is a crucial step towards fostering a positive and productive work culture. In this blog post, we discuss 10 common phrases used by toxic leaders and provide transformational alternatives that can enhance communication, encourage collaboration, and inspire positive change.

1. Toxic statement: "That's not my problem." Transformational alternative: "That's outside of my scope and sphere of influence. However I'm happy to help you identify the right person to address this issue with."

Explanation: Rather than dismissing an issue as someone else's problem, a transformational leader acknowledges the challenge and demonstrates a willingness to collaborate and find a solution. This approach promotes teamwork and collective problem-solving.

2. Toxic statement: "You should have known better." Transformational alternative: "While this has been covered extensively in our trainings, everyone makes mistakes. Let's learn from this situation and find ways to improve moving forward."

Explanation: Instead of blaming and shaming, a transformational leader encourages a growth mindset and focuses on learning from mistakes. By fostering a culture of continuous improvement, the leader helps individuals develop their skills and knowledge.

3. Toxic statement: "I don't have time for this." Transformational alternative: "Let's schedule a suitable time to discuss this so we can address it with no distractions."

Explanation: A transformational leader recognizes the importance of addressing concerns or issues but acknowledges that time may be a constraint. By offering to find a suitable time, the leader demonstrates a commitment to addressing matters without dismissing them outright.

4. Toxic statement: "You're not paid to think." Transformational alternative: "While execution is our priority right now, your thoughts and insights are valuable. Let's discuss your ideas further."

Explanation: A transformational leader values the input and creativity of team members. By encouraging independent thinking and expressing interest in their ideas, the leader fosters a culture of innovation and engagement.

5. Toxic statement: "I don't care." Transformational alternative: "We don't seem to agree, however, I want to understand your perspective better."

Explanation: A transformational leader shows empathy and a genuine interest in understanding others' viewpoints. By inviting open dialogue, the leader fosters a culture of respect and encourages constructive communication.

6. Toxic statement: "That's just the way things are." Transformational alternative: "We have not challenged the status quo or explored new possibilities yet, but perhaps we should to find more effective ways of doing this."

Explanation: Instead of accepting the status quo as a limitation, a transformational leader encourages creativity and innovation. By promoting a mindset of continuous improvement, the leader inspires individuals to seek alternative solutions and drive positive change.

7. Toxic statement: "Stop complaining and deal with it." Transformational alternative: "I understand your concerns. Consider some solutions and let me know how I can support you in managing this situation."

Explanation: A transformational leader acknowledges individuals' concerns and demonstrates a willingness to address them constructively. By fostering a supportive environment, the leader encourages open communication and collaborative problem-solving.

8. Toxic statement: "You're making a big deal out of nothing." Transformational alternative: "I value your perspective. Let's discuss the issue further so that I may gain a better understanding of your concerns."

Explanation: Rather than diminishing someone's concerns, a transformational leader acknowledges their viewpoint and encourages a deeper exploration of the issue. By fostering open communication, the leader promotes a culture of psychological safety and trust.

9. Toxic statement: "Just suck it up and get it done." Transformational alternative: "I understand it may be challenging, but let's work together to find a way forward."

Explanation: A transformational leader acknowledges the difficulty of a task while emphasizing the importance of collaboration and support. By offering assistance and guidance, the leader encourages team members to overcome challenges while maintaining their well-being.

10. Toxic statement: "I can't be bothered with this right now." Transformational alternative: "I recognize this is important. Let's find a suitable time to discuss it."

Explanation: A transformational leader acknowledges the importance of the matter and expresses a commitment to addressing it, even if immediate attention may not be possible. By offering to schedule a discussion, the leader demonstrates a proactive approach to problem-solving.

These transformational alternatives promote respectful and constructive communication while fostering a positive and supportive work environment. They encourage collaboration, empathy, and a focus on finding solutions rather than dismissing or belittling individuals' concerns.

The language leaders use can either encourage and uplift their teams or create a toxic environment that stifles growth and collaboration. Recognizing the toxicity in certain phrases and consciously replacing them with transformational alternatives is a crucial step in this journey. It's important to remember that everyone, including leaders, can learn, grow, and change. The transformation may not happen overnight, but with continuous effort, leaders can significantly impact their teams, fostering a culture of mutual respect, open communication, and continuous learning. As leaders, the words we choose to use reflect the culture we aim to build. So let's choose wisely, thoughtfully, and with an open heart.


Dr. Wanita Mercer, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Lead My Heart, an executive coaching and consulting company specializing in equipping executives and executive teams to live and lead with purpose, passion, and power. She has a Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in organizational leadership, and she is certified in life coaching, executive coaching, change management, project management, executive management, and corporate crisis management. She has over 15 years of experience as an international educator, motivational speaker, author, and civic leader. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.


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