Toxic Retail Leadership

Toxic Retail Leadership

When I created this headline I, initially, typed “Poor Retail Leadership” – but using the word “poor” brings up the idea that the leader may be okay – perhaps just not very strong. What I want to write about today is the truly bad and toxic leader and how they interfere with the growth, development, and retention of truly remarkable team members.

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders in the retail workplace. There is so much pressure to deliver, execute, and comply in retail today that many leaders choose to lead through fear and intimidation as opposed to behaving as a supportive and inspiring business partner to their team. Someone that is committed to hiring great talent and investing in their development, career path, and ultimate career success.

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Recently, I was on a conference call with a retail organization and heard the words “comply/compliance” 27 times and “execute” 14 times during the call. During the call – there was a single reference to recognition but it was a fleeting comment and when I followed up on what that program looks like and how it works, I was told there was no formal recognition program – but the “managers know they should say ‘thank you’ when they can“. I was working with this organization to identify opportunity areas that could make a positive and immediate impact on the culture.

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One of the wonderful opportunities I had was to spend time with some store teams [usually I am working with corporate] to find out about how they feel about their workplace culture and their leadership. They shared some common stories of interactions with their field leaders [which is largely email based], they walked me through their store visits [which consistently was a laundry list of to-do’s and operational misses], and I worked with an amazing Store Manager who shared a story about how they were specifically dissuaded by their District Manager to pursue an elevated career path within the organization because they had children and a higher-level role wasn’t conducive to someone who had children.  After having very vivid and honest dialogs about the workplace culture with the team members that are the customer facing and critical catalysts for the business it became very apparent – very quickly that their field leadership was toxic – plain and simple.

You all know at least one leader that you have encountered that shouldn’t be allowed to lead anyone- let alone be employed by a company in such a capacity. They are not always the vile characters we often think about. Sometimes they are just cunning, undercutting, always playing and dealing a card at the right time. Everyone on their staff sees them for who they are. Internal and external partners even see it. The trouble is when HR ignores the smoke and the C-Suite is blinded completely by charm and other artificially-sweetened personality trickery. There are usually attempts to dethrone this person, but they are usually thwarted by a lengthy list of reasons why the person cannot be fired.“ Their collateral damage far outweighs any contributions they make to the company.  – Janine N. Truitt, founder of “The Aristocracy of HR” blog

These terrible “managers” cause revolution inside the culture they promised to lead and guide their team around. They cost the company talent, money, productivity, motivation, and customers. In this case it was EXTREMELY easy to identify why their business was suffering. It is an unfortunate truth that retail hires and promotes too many narcissists, bullies, and “officers of compliance” who are dedicated – primarily – to self-interest and self-promotion. Ignoring the long-term impact these horrible “managers” have can damage and even destroy organizations.

Many senior- and executive-level leaders easily are fooled by, and blind to, these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic value [and the ability to behave differently in front of their superiors] to the organization that overshadows their inability to motivate and inspire teams to success and happiness and the teams know that if they speak up there will be retaliation by their direct supervisor.

3 Clear Warning Signs of A Toxic “Manager”

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  • Only Focuses On Negatives: Terrible managers focus solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems and rarely gives positive feedback for what is going right.
  • They Are Bullies: Toxic “managers” either directly bullies employees or tolerate it when it occurs among employees.
  • They Treat People Like Garbage: People are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness and/or well-being. They profoundly lack compassion and empathy for employees.

The damage to morale, customer experience, and the culture these toxic “managers” inflict far outweighs the benefit their knowledge and experience delivers to the role. And allowing “leaders” to wreak havoc on the business and culture is a bad business direction during these times of rapid and dramatic change in retail.

The End Result of A Toxic Manager

High morale and engagement in the workplace is essential to success and is mostly influenced from the top down rather than from the bottom up.  “Managers” that create low morale and a toxic culture for their employees do so from a top-down command, compliance, and control mode, which implies that ’employees’ do the listening and “do-ing” and managers are above reciprocating that competency. By prohibiting open dialogs around workplace issues – these toxic and damaging managers are blind to the struggles and obstacles that exist for their team and generally fail to treat their team members with any level of respect or even decency.  This usually results in failure to address the real problem(s) and leads to critical levels of employee disengagement, a culture of distrust, and a tremendous decline in team morale, productivity, and motivation.

Low engagement teams are less customer-focused and prone to minimizing their efforts and adopting counterproductive behaviors that negatively impact customer experience and organizational success.

Signs & Symptoms Of A Toxic Retail Leader

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Toxic leadership is a growing and high-cost reality inside our industry with the elevated pressures of retailers declaring bankruptcy and failing left and right. Terrible bosses increase turnover – and the extreme costs associated with it; it results in increased absenteeism; and it results in customer churn. Toxic leaders hurt the business – and we, by not taking action, allow this to occur.

According to Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg, research evidence shows that one out of every five leaders [or 20%] is toxic, and he finds that his research shows it is actually closer to three out of every 10 leaders!

In 2010 the Workplace Bullying Institute conducted a survey and found that 35% of the American workforce [53,500,000 people] has directly experienced workplace bullying, or “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, or sabotage of work performance”, while an additional 15% of respondents said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.

Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, says that a toxic leader can be characterized by the following behaviors:

  • Is a narcissist, bully, and/or psychopath;
  • Makes many promises that never happen;
  • Undermines the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of others;
  • Lacks empathy and compassion for others;
  • Leaves their followers and the organization worse off than when they found it;
  • Plays to the basest fears and needs of the followers;
  • Threatens or punishes those who fail to comply with the leader or question the leader’s actions;
  • Lies and is deceitful;
  • Must win at all costs;
  • Charms, cultivates and manipulates followers;
  • Blames others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticizes others;
  • Constantly seeks and needs praise;
  • Has a sense of entitlement and believes they are “special”;
  • Is super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it [retaliatory];
  • Often exhibits mood swings and temper tantrums;
  • Takes credit for others’ work.

Symptoms Of A Bad Leader

  • Poor, Chaotic, and Confused Communication Is The Norm;
  • Negligence To, And Inconsistency In, Results ;
  • Lack Of Focus on Talent Development, Succession & Career Path Planning;
  • Inability To Build Effective Teams With Aligned Purpose;
  • Severe Lack of Creativity;
  • Lack of True Commitment or Consideration To Their Team.

Signs Of High Engagement and Leadership Confidence

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  • Productivity & Passion of Purpose Reign Supreme: When employee morale is high – productivity definitely rises. In any retail organization, employees are the most important and valuable asset to the business health & growth. When there is alignment around the purpose, passion, enthusiasm, goals, and objectives of the business and people there will be a collective call to action and a determination to succeed by design.
  • Creativity & Innovation Support Solutions and Overcoming Obstacles: When there is cohesion, trust, and respect for the organization and the people inside the organization – there is a desire to support the growth of the business. People support each other even when it is outside their “job descriptions”. You will also find that your team supports the culture and encourages others to join in a positive and engaging workplace atmosphere.
  • They Are Consistently Successful By Design: Their team’s performance results are consistently focused on delivering great results to the organization. Their team knows exactly where they stand and what their next steps are. They are compelled to support the organizational goals and objectives.
  • They Are Constantly Developing The Next Leaders: Great leaders want to grow and develop their team to the next level. It gives their team something to achieve and it reflects well on the leader. They would never discourage a great employee from pursuing an elevated career path. Quite the opposite – great leaders inspire people who start just for the paycheck to find a home and a career inside retail.
  • They Understand That Customer Experience Is Key To Success: As great leaders we understand that when we create a strong work culture for our team members they will create a strong customer experience for the consumer.  A happy and engaging employee experience translates to a happy and engaging customer experience.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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8 thoughts on “Toxic Retail Leadership

  1. Maybe if they read this it will finally open their eyes to what everyone else knows about them but they fail to change.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. Until a month ago I hated my job for a year. We had a toxic store manager.
    Under new leadership, after only a week morale improved. Pride in our store improved and the hourly employees are so much happier and less stress, that even customers notice.

    And you are correct, upper management never noticed the chaos and harm the previous boss (yes boss as this person was not a leader) caused the business.

  3. I just left a company for this very same reason. Though the company itself is not bad at all. This one DM is hurting so much and so many people. I hope they see it before it’s too late and they lose all their great people.. I just wish some bosses would see what negativity does to a company and people..

  4. I too was a victim of said toxic management. I was rapidly promoted and thrown in positions in a trail by fire way. I eventually went through a store manager in training which consisted being given a 5 inch binder and no mentoring. I eventually graduated the process, but they just kept dangling the carrot so to speak. I grew very resentful as they hired a person from outside the company to manage the store I worked at. That manager was a class A toxic manager, who basically blacked balled me, and forced me out. After a few months passed he was arrested at work for theft. The amount of abuse made me feel very unworthy and that I had no business in retail management. My self worth went into the toilet and I’m not sure it’s back to previous levels. Thanks for the article, for now I know I’m not the only one who is victimized, and that others do not like the management direction in retail.

  5. Sadly, every word of your article describes two toxic managers that I have had the misfortune to work under. This Oklahoma based craft empire sounds oh so good on paper…and they have no idea how rotten some of their manager flock really are. Their organizational structure is top down, period. They put misplaced trust in people who are given power. Power without wisdom is toxic by definition. When a company believes that its financial success indicates that all is well…it deceives itself. These two toxic managers are still with the company. They are systematically destroying associate moral and desire to produce. I believe that if an associate review of managers were to take place on a regular basis (never has happened here), this company would rise to their ‘paper virtue’, and dismiss these two men. As it is, we employees are left no choice but to believe that this company cares little for its front line workers. We have no way to ‘bubble up’ the truth.

  6. I have a very toxic work environment after I’ve reported many instances of sexual misconduct.

    The management seems to always suggest that I not use the open door that he clearly prides itself on, yet when you use it.. you’re seen as being annoying.

    I started to record every time that they try to take me into the back office, so there is no my word against their word.

    It’s a nightmare and the store manager has no clue what’s going on or how to engage with customers, or employees and has favorites, and retaliates.

    It’s so sad because it could be such a fun place to work without the bully tactics,and treating people without regard.

    My Dog died so I called off..

    Store manager response was “I needed an opener.”

    There is no excuse for that lack of care, or lack of human consideration.

    1. Amy – so sorry you’re having this experience. If you want to talk through ways to surface your issues, I am happy to discuss with you. Everyone is entitled to a safe, physically & mentally, workplace. Let me know.

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