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The Toxic Triangle

Understanding factors that give rise to the 'toxic triangle'.
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© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

What might happen when the misuse of emotional intelligence starts to gain a foothold in organisational life?

We have started to address sensitive issues around working with our own emotional intelligence issues as well as those of others. We first examined the dark side of emotional intelligence in Week 1; we now examine the interplay between leaders, followers and contexts and how these three factors can combine to create conditions for the dark side to thrive.

Padilla and the ‘toxic triangle’

Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser (2007: 179) explore the relationship between destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive contexts within a ‘toxic triangle’. They suggest that destructive leaders may well possess ‘dark side’ qualities and use their emotional intelligence inappropriately.

However, the picture is incomplete unless the environmental conditions (possibly a lack of a strong ethical culture) and susceptible followers (conformers who are unable to withstand the onslaught or colluders who are looking to further their own ambitions and recognise the leader as a potential support) are in place.

Here are some factors which may encourage the ‘toxic triangle’:

  • An initially successful and charismatic leader (which ‘dark side’ leaders often are) may result in colleagues and bosses ignoring or justifying negative behaviours when they start to emerge (Conger 1990: 50).
  • The power of the dark side leader encourages ‘group think’ whereby any critique of decisions made and attitudes displayed are strongly discouraged.
  • It becomes more important to agree with the boss than be sidelined or ostracised from the inner circle.
  • With limited power, susceptible followers are unlikely to oblige a behaviour change in their leaders.
  • Absenteeism, wellbeing issues and staff turnover increases and recruitment focuses on new colluders and conformers.

Organisational health is often compromised by the toxic triangle and because of the entrenchment of these behaviours, long-term solutions are difficult to find.

Emotionally intelligent responses to the toxic triangle

What might be an emotionally intelligent way to develop the following possible responses to the toxic triangle?

  • Develop strong teams to reduce the potentially destructive effect of such leadership.
  • Enable followers to find their voice.
  • Encourage and educate leaders to change.
  • Identify and address the organisational cultural norms that enable the toxic triangle to flourish.
  • Examine how organisations recruit their potential leaders to ensure that emotional intelligence plays a part.

Your task

If you were working with a toxic triangle (destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive contexts), which part of the triangle would you work on first and why?


Conger, J. A. (1990) ‘The Dark Side of Leadership’. Organizational Dynamics 19 (2), 44-55

Padilla, A., Hogan, R., and Kaiser, R. B. (2007) ‘The Toxic Triangle: Destructive Leaders, Susceptible Followers, and Conducive Environments’. The Leadership Quarterly 18 (3), 176-194

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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