Leadership Barometer 43 Toxic Leaders

March 22, 2020

We are all familiar with the word “toxic” and recognize that toxic substances are known to cause human beings serious injury or death. We are also aware that some individuals have mastered the skill of being toxic to other people.

When a toxic person is the leader of an organization, the performance of that unit will typically be less than half what it would be under a leader who builds trust. There is documented evidence (see Trust Across America statistics) that high trust groups outperform low trust groups by a factor of two to five times.

Thankfully, the majority of leaders are not toxic. One estimate given by LTG Walter F. Ulmer in an article entitled “Toxic Leadership” (Army, June 2012) is that 30-50% of leaders are essentially transformational, while only 8-10% are essentially toxic. The unfortunate reality is that one toxic leader in an organization does such incredible damage, he or she can bring down an entire culture without even realizing it.

Why would a leader speak and behave in a toxic way if he or she recognizes the harm being done to the organization?

Is it because leaders are just not aware of the link between their behaviors and performance of the group?

Is it because they are totally unaware of the fact that their actions are toxic to others?

Is it because they are lazy and just prefer to bark out orders rather than work to encourage people?

While there are instances where any of these modes might be in play, I think other mechanisms are responsible for most of the lamentable behaviors of toxic leaders.

Toxic leaders do understand that employees are generally unhappy working under them. What they fail to see is the incredible leverage they are leaving off the table. They just do not believe there is a better way to manage, otherwise they would do that.

If you are in an organization, there is a possibility you are in daily contact with one or more toxic leaders. There are three possibilities here: 1) you have a leader working for you who is toxic, 2) you are a toxic leader yourself, but do not know it or want to admit it, or 3) you are working for a toxic leader or have one higher in the chain of command. I will give some tips you can use for each of these cases.

Toxic Leader Working for you

This person needs to become more aware that he or she is operating at cross purposes to the goals of the organization. Do this through education and coaching. Once awareness is there, then you can begin to shape the behavior through leadership development and reinforcement. It may be that this person is just not a good fit for a leadership role. If the behaviors are not improved, then this leader should be removed.

You are a toxic leader

It is probably not obvious to you how much damage is being done by your treatment of other people. They are afraid to tell you what is actually going on, so you are getting grudging compliance and leaving their maximum discretionary effort unavailable to the organization. Trust will not grow in an environment of fear.

The antidote here is to genuinely assess your own level of toxicity and change it if you are not happy with the answer. This can be accomplished through getting a leadership coach or getting some excellent training. Try to read at least one good leadership book every month.

You are working for a toxic leader

In my experience, this is the most common situation. It is difficult and dangerous to retrofit your boss to be less toxic. My favorite saying for this situation is, “Never wrestle a pig. You get all muddy and the pig loves it.”

So what can you do that will have a positive impact on the situation without risking loss of employment? Here are some ideas that may help, depending on how severe the problem is and how open minded your boss is:

1. Create a leadership growth activity in your area and invite the boss to participate. Use a “lunch and learn” format where various leaders review some great books on leadership. I would start with some of the Warren Bennis books or perhaps Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

2. Suggest that part of the performance gap is a lack of trust in higher management and get some dialog on how this could be improved. By getting the boss to verbalize a dissatisfaction with the status quo, you can gently shape the issue back to the leader’s behaviors. The idea is to build a recognition of the causal relationship between culture and performance.

3. Show some of the statistical data that is available that links higher trust to greater productivity. The Trust Across America Website is a great source of this information.

4. Bring in a speaker who specializes in improving culture for a quarterly meeting. Try to get the speaker to interface with the problem leader personally offline. If the leader can see some glimmer of hope that a different way of operating would provide the improvements he or she is seeking, then some progress can be made.

5. Suggest some leadership development training for all levels in the organization. Here it is not necessary to identify the specific leader as “the problem,” rather, discuss how improved leadership behaviors at all levels would greatly benefit the organization.

6. Reinforce any small directional baby steps in the right direction the leader inadvertently shows. Reinforcement from below can be highly effective if it is sincere. You can actually shape the behavior of your boss by frequent reminders of the things he or she is doing right.

It is a rare leader who will admit, “Our performance is far off the mark, and since I am in charge, it must be that my behaviors are preventing people from giving the organization their maximum discretionary effort.”

Those senior leaders who would seriously consider this statement are the ones who can find ways to change through training and coaching. They are the ones who have the better future.

Most toxic leaders will remain with their habits that sap the vital energy from people and take their organizations in exactly the opposite direction from where they want to go.

Another key reason why toxic leaders fail to see the opportunity staring them in the face is a misconception about Leadership Development. The typical comment is, “We are not into the touchy-feely stuff here. We do not dance around the maypole and sing Kum-ba-yah while toasting marshmallows by the campfire.”

The problem here is that several leadership training methods in the past have used outdoor experiential training to teach the impact of good teamwork and togetherness. Senior leaders often feel too serious and dignified for that kind of frivolity, so they sit in their offices and honestly believe any remedial training needs to be directed toward the junior leaders.

To reduce the impact of a toxic leader, follow the steps outlined above, and you may be able to make a large shift in performance over time while preserving your job. You can even use this article as food for thought and pass it around the office to generate dialog on how to chart a better future for the organization.




Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.




Successful Supervisor 66 The Mediator Role

February 24, 2018

Every supervisor is called upon to play the role of mediator between two parties who are having agreement problems. The severity of the problem will vary based on the specific circumstances and the people involved.

If we think about the extremes, a mild situation might be helping resolve an argument about a machine cleaning process between individuals working on a team, while a severe situation may involve physical threats where one or both of the parties may be in real danger or are facing termination.

For inexperienced supervisors, it is always best to err on the side of caution and have additional resources ready to assist if needed. It may not be appropriate to have a security person in the room with the people who are arguing, but it might be wise to have one in an adjacent room on call in the event of escalating rancor.

In the interest of transparency, I am not a professional mediator, so my homespun advice below may be in some ways only a primer leading you to more study on the topic. I have been in many situations where I was the mediator, and I still have all my fingers and toes. What I will share below are some ideas on how to expand the conventional approach to one that can have a more permanent impact on the entire organization.

Typical Approach to Mediation

The process of mediation almost always involves getting the two parties together for a discussion, or a series of discussions, with an objective. The primary objective is to restore order and come up with a fair settlement.

The methodology is to get both parties to talk, make sure both parties are heard, look for areas of agreement, agree to disagree on some things if necessary, look for win-win solutions, seek cooperation, and document actions.

The overarching role of the mediator is to maintain safety for all parties as the discussion continues and guide the dialog toward a resolution. The typical discussions have several parts that may be handled in different order depending on the nature of the disagreement.

In general, it is best to start with establishing a safe environment where each party can hear the other. Next comes a fact finding approach where the perceived facts are given. Third is a search for potential resolutions, and finally there is an action phase where the parties agree on some steps to resolve the conflict.

What the Parts Look Like in More Detail

1. Create a set of ground rules that both parties can accept

The idea here is to review how the discussion will proceed and how to maintain order so both parties can make their points in safety. If the parties are especially hostile, it helps to have a brief list of rules for the specific situation. For example, some points might include:

• Talk only when it is your turn
• Be respectful in the language you use – no profanity
• Listen carefully when the other person is speaking
• No electronic devices should be used
• No weapons are allowed in the room
• Respect the role of the mediator

2. Establish what happened in the opinion of both parties

Often the problem is that the parties do not have the same understanding of exactly what happened, and this clarification phase obviates the need for further work. Once both parties can agree on what happened and the confusion is over, often they can shake hands and the incident is over. If they agree on what happened but are still at odds over the fairness or equity, then further analysis is needed.

3. If possible, try to identify areas of agreement

It is chancy to begin with who is right and who is wrong, because it presupposes there is a right and wrong way to articulate what people are thinking. Both individuals will have a deep feeling that their way is the correct interpretation. That is why the better approach is to look for areas where the parties already agree. Perhaps they can agree on a major objective for the group but are at odds over how to achieve that.

4. Look for peace in the valley

Of course, an objective is to end hostilities, but that is not the only consideration. A key area to pursue is how to modify conditions so the problem is not only solved but the culture has changed so it will not come back in a different form. A short term peace is good, but the objective should be long term accord.

Explore options with the individuals by asking open ended questions like, “What would have to happen for the situation to be acceptable to you?” Always seek to find win-win solutions so that both parties are satisfied. Often a solution that satisfies one party will be totally unacceptable to the other party. In this case, keep looking for other options that can be acceptable to both parties.

5. Try to reach a fair settlement

Crafting a “fair” settlement is high on the agenda, but this can be myopic. The focus should shift from what will suffice to calm things down now to how the environment can be modified to attack the root cause of the acrimony.

For example, if two administrative people are at odds over the formatting of a critical report, you may be able to get them to agree on one common format. Unfortunately, if the root cause is that their managers have differing views on what they want the reports to emphasize, then the agreed-upon solution will be short lived.

6. Maintain your authority

You go into the discussion as the authority figure, and it is important not to lose that position. That requires being as objective and neutral as possible, which in some cases is difficult to do.

These are some of the typical steps to achieve a resolution of a specific problem between two people, but the real mediation requires more than just getting the two people to get along. You need to extend the thinking beyond the two individuals so that you consider the culture these individuals are working in to accomplish a lasting solution.

Extend the Focus

The approaches above are not total long term solutions. If you can factor the things below into the conversation, your thinking process, and your leadership, you will emerge with more robust and lasting solutions.

1. Train people how to resolve future conflicts

Part of the human condition is that we all see things from our own perspective. It is natural that there will be differences of opinion from time to time. You want to focus your coaching remarks on processes that will allow people to get along even though they do not always agree. The key skill is for people to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.

2. Creating a preventive rather than reactive culture

Often the entire culture can become supportive of ways to get along amid the turmoil of daily stresses. The idea is to stress that the entire team shares a common goal at a higher level. We all want the group to be successful, and we know that fighting always detracts from performance.

Teambuilding exercises are very helpful for teaching groups to work better together with less acrimony. Building a culture of higher trust will obviate the future need for a mediator to sort out the issues.

3. Engaging the entire community

Working with the whole team to create a set of mutual values and agreed upon behaviors can go a long way to preventing the flare ups between two edgy people.

When operating in the role of a mediator, it is often tempting to focus on resolving the issues at hand, but that process does not prevent recurrence. Take a longer view and work on your entire culture and you will find less need to play the mediator role in the future.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Every Day Matters

September 9, 2012

There is a saying that has kicked around for years: “It is the Super Bowl every day.” So many people have used it, I cannot trace who said it first. There is even a Twitter hashtag that uses the phrase as a portal. One author added the concept that in life there are no time outs. In this article, I wanted to expand on these concepts and look inside the locker room.

The concept of each day being the Super Bowl simply refers to the importance of living every day as if it was the most important day we have. Intellectually, we realize that some days are more important than others. I may kick back for a day and do absolutely nothing productive or important all day. Yet to waste a day, or even an hour, is to squander our most important resource in life. Time is really all we have to work with, and each of us gets exactly 24 hours every day. That is like the Super Bowl. It has a start time and an end time, but in the case of life, there are no reruns and no time outs. The game proceeds only forward and has a finite end.

Of what value is thinking in these dimensions? We often forget the fleeting nature of life, because most of us have decades yet to live. That is enough time to achieve numerous accomplishments and build lasting relationships. Each day, each increment of time, seems insignificant, like a drop in the ocean. It is a mistake to think that way, because once a day is spent, it is gone forever.

But life is not just about doing things. It is about enjoying what we do and building relationships that matter. It is the emotional connection we have with loved ones, not the things we have accomplished or acquired, that occupy our final thoughts as we prepare to leave this world.

I think the analogy of the Super Bowl works here as well. We do not play the game of life alone. We are on a team, surrounded by people we love, who help us play our best game possible. We have coaches and support people who fix us up when we fall and help us rise to be our best in the game of life. It is how we treat others that determines how well the team plays together. If trust, respect, and love are carried in our hearts, the team will be a strong winning group.

One thing that every human on the planet shares is the knowledge that one day he or she is going to die. If you remember the movie, “Dead Poets Society,” that concept is what Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams), was trying to instill in the freshmen at the Helton Prep School. It was the notion of “Carpe-Diem,” or seize the day. You may recall the riveting scene where Keating had the students line up and look in the trophy case at the pictures of former athletes who were dead and gone: their Super Bowl over. He pointed out that the only difference between the boys he was addressing and the deceased athletes in the pictures was that the boys were alive that day. What a powerful scene!

I bring up the concept of carpe-diem at the end of every leadership class I teach. I believe it is the responsibility of each of us to approach each day as if it was Super Bowl Sunday, and we are in the game. Sure, there is time for rest and recuperation, just as winded athletes can sit out a few plays, but even as we rest, the game is still going on.

Try this little exercise to see if it can enrich your life. Intentionally break into your stream of consciousness at least once a day and ask yourself where you are right now. Are you sitting on the bench or are you playing in the game? Are you happy with the job you did on the last play? Do you have a good plan for your next play? How are you treating your teammates who are helping you play the game? Right now, are you playing offense or defense?

You have a general idea how much time is on the clock, but what if a fatal blow takes you out of the game early? Have you made the most of the opportunities you have had along the way? What will the spectators and your teammates remember about you and your life when it is over?

The good news is that there really is time for most of us to improve our game plan. It takes work, but it is rewarding to modify the future plays to obtain a more successful future. We can always foster better relations with the people we love and have more fun. The choice is up to each one of us every day. Make the right choice.


Mentor Power

July 29, 2012

If you do not have at least one active mentor, you are missing a lot. In my experience, having a strong mentor at work made a huge difference in my career. Even in my ripening old age, I am still gaining benefits from the lessons and ideas planted in me by my mentor when I was younger.

There are obvious benefits of having a mentor in an organization.

1. A mentor helps you learn the ropes faster

2. A mentor coaches you on what to do and especially what to avoid.

3. A mentor is an advocate for you in different circles than yours.

4. A mentor cleans up after you have made a mistake and helps protect your reputation.

5. A mentor pushes you when you need pushing and praises you when you need it.

6. A mentor brings wisdom born of mistakes made in the past so you can avoid them.

7. A mentor operates as a sounding board for ideas and methods.

Many organizations have some form of mentoring program. I support the idea of fostering mentors, but the typical application has a low hit rate long term. That is because the mentor programs in most organizations are procedural rather than organic.

A typical mentor program couples younger professionals with more experienced managers after some sort of computerized matching process. The relationship starts out being helpful for both people, but after a few months it has degraded into a burdensome commitment of time and energy. This aspect is accentuated if there are paperwork requirements or other check-box activities. After about six months, the activities are small remnants of the envisioned program.

The more productive programs seek to educate professionals on the benefits of having a mentor and encourage people to find their own match. This strategy works much better because the chemistry is right from the start, and both parties immediately see the huge gains being made by both people. It is a mutually-supported organic system rather than an activities-based approach. It is pretty obvious how the protégé benefits in a mentor relationship, but how does the mentor gain from it?

Mentors gain significantly in the following ways:

1. The mentor focuses on helping the protégé, which is personally satisfying.

2. The mentor can gain information from a different level of the organization that may not be readily available by any other means.

3. The mentor helps find information and resources for the protégé, so there is some important learning going on. The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.

4. While pushing the protégé forward in the organization, the mentor has the ability to return some favors owed to other managers.

5. The mentor gains a reputation for nurturing people and can thus attract better people over time.

6. The mentor can enhance his or her legacy in the organization by creating an understudy.

Encourage a strong mentoring program in your organization but steer clear of the mechanical match game and the busywork of an overdone process. Let people recognize the benefits and figure out their optimal relationships.


Rumors and Gossip – 7 Tips

May 15, 2011

Rumors and gossip can be debilitating for any organization. They create a kind of parallel universe that siphons vital energy away from important work. They cause a need for leaders to do the same damage control they would do if the rumors were actually true. Reason: What people believe is reality to them. If many people in an organization believe there is going to be a cut in salary, even if that is not the case, the leader must do the damage control as if it was actually going to happen. In the hyper-competitive global marketplace, organizations cannot afford to cope with distracting ghosts born through the rumor mill.

Let’s explore several thoughts about the impact of rumors and how to prevent them from starting in the first place.

Trust is an antidote

Trust and rumors are mostly incompatible. If there is low trust, it is easy for someone to project something negative for the future. When trust is low, these sparks create a roaring blaze like tinder in a sun-parched and wind-swept desert. If trust is high, the spark may still be there, but it will have trouble catching on and growing. This is because people will just check with the boss about the validity of the rumor.

When trust is high, the communication process is efficient, as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy. In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the rumors takes energy away from the mission and strategy. Building high trust is not the subject of this article. I have written extensively on how to build trust elsewhere, and there are numerous other authors who write about it.

Rumors generate spontaneously

Just as a fire can be kindled spontaneously, so rumors and gossip can develop without any apparent external influence. I believe it is part of the human condition to speculate on what might happen. This tendency is greatly enhanced in a culture of low respect. Often it is a void of timely communication that causes a rumor to start.

Nature hates a vacuum. If you have a bare spot in the lawn, nature will fill it in quickly, usually with weeds. If you take a pail of water out of a pond, nature will fill it in immediately so no “hole” exists in the surface. We can hear the sound of air rushing into a coffee can when the opener first compromises the vacuum. So it is also with people. When there is a vacuum of credible information, people fill in the situation with information of their own invention – usually “weeds.”

Rumors wick energy away from critical work

Dealing with the reality and consequences of gossip is a significant tax that is paid by organizations that have a culture which breeds false information. My swimming pool is cloudy now because I did not maintain an environment inhospitable to algae. Now I must invest in pounds of expensive chemicals and do extra work that would not have been necessary if I had exercised the right ounces of prevention a few weeks ago.

Seven tips for leaders to reduce the impact of rumors:

1. Intervene quickly when there is a rumor and provide solid, believable information about what is really going to happen. It is best to have this intervention before the rumor even starts, but it is essential to nip the problem as soon as it is detected.

2. Coach the worst offenders to stop. Usually it is not hard to tell the 2-3 people in a group who like to stir up trouble. They are easy to spot in the break room. Take these people aside and ask them to tone down the speculation. One interesting way to mitigate a group of gossipers is to go and sit at the lunch table with them. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it can be very helpful at detecting rumors early. Just as in fighting a disease, the sooner some treatment can be applied, the easier the problem is to control.

3. Double the communication in times of uncertainty. There are times when the genesis of a rumor is easy to predict. Suppose all the top managers have a long closed-door meeting with the shades pulled. People are going to wonder what is being discussed. Suppose the financial performance indicates that continuing on the present path is impossible. What if there are strange people walking around the shop floor with tape measures? There could be a consultant going around asking all kinds of probing questions. All these things, and numerous others, are bound to have people start speculating. When this happens, smart leaders get out on the shop floor to interface more with the people. Unfortunately, when there are unusual circumstances, most managers like to hide in their offices or in meetings to avoid having to deal with pointed questions. That is exactly the opposite of the most helpful suggestion.

4. Find multiple ways to communicate the truth. People need to hear something more than once to start believing it. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2011, nearly 60% of people indicate they need to hear organizational news (good or bad) at least three to five times before they believe it.

5. Reinforce open dialog. If people are praised rather than punished for speaking out when there is a disconnect, they will do more of it. That mechanism is a short circuit to the rumor mill. It also helps build the trust level, which is the best way to subdue the rumor agents.

6. Model a no-gossip policy. People pick up on the tactics of a leader and mimic them on the shop floor. If the leader is prone to sending out juicy bits of unsubstantiated speculation, then others in the organization will be encouraged to do the same thing. Conversely, if a leader refuses to discuss information that is potentially incorrect, then it models the kind of self control that will be picked up by at least some people.

7. Extinguish gossip behavior. This may mean breaking up a clique of busy-bodies or at least adding some new objective blood into the mix. It might mean having a “no BS” policy for the entire team.

In today’s climate, it is essential to mitigate if not eliminate the impact of rumors and gossip in the workplace. It takes a strong and vigilant leader to do this well, but it has potentially huge benefits to the organization.