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.




The Power of Trust in Your Life

December 19, 2015

Every human being goes through the same ritual when confronting death. You look at your life and try to make some sense of your precious short duration in the physical world.

If you can identify several relationships of trust and love with the people in your life, you will close your eyes and take your last breath in peace.

If you have squandered the opportunities to create the spirit of trust with people, you will die a lonely and bitter soul. It is for each of us to decide how we experience those final few seconds of our existence.

The pile of clutter we have generated during our years of existence will not matter much at that point. As we pass from the physical to the spiritual world, the quality of our life will boil down to the relationships of trust and love we have nurtured.

We each have a choice to make every day. I advocate we invest in the relationships and be worthy of the trust of others. I suggest that the best way to generate trust is to extend it to others.

In an organization, trust is the lubricant that allows all of the leadership functions to be effective. It is created by having a safe environment where people can express themselves without fear.

With trust, groups will be productive and happy. Without trust, you will find disengaged people who simply do not care about the goals of the organization.

Vow today to invest in the relationships you have and can create with other people. Put a high premium on this commodity called trust. The more you invest in the things that build trust, the richer your life will be.

Never, never, never intentionally destroy trust.

I have decided to dedicate the last 20-30 years of my life helping to educate as many people as possible on the merits of trust in their lives and how to obtain more of it.

I hope you have enjoyed these articles, based on my “Building Trust” Video Program, over the past few months and that my ideas have made a difference for you.

We each decide for ourselves how to live our lives. I hope you realize the impact that more trust will have in the quality of your life. The more of it you have, the more satisfaction you will experience.

This is the last in the series that was derived from a video program entitled “Building Trust,” a 30 part series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to http://www.avanoo.com/first3/517


Murders and Apparitions

March 9, 2013

Knife in handMost business people call them Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As), but my wife calls them Murders and Apparitions. M&As are supposed to make things better, but far too often they create ghosts that spirit away trust or lead to outright “companycide.”

For those who have not studied the subject, the failure rate of M&As typically runs between 50% and 80%. Don’t believe me? Look it up! Of course that statistic depends on how you define failure. A “failure” does not always mean the merger needs to be broken up or the acquisition resold. Generally, people refer to an M&A failure when organizations have preconceived expectations from a merger or acquisition that are not realized within 2-3 years after the event.

M&A failures are common, but it is not because the lawyers, accountants, and managers of the entities do a poor job with the mechanical parts of the action. The negotiations, due diligence, formal papers, tax considerations, asset valuation, and other tangible things are taught in the business schools and are normally pretty well done. What invariably destroys an M&A is a failure to merge the cultures of the two entities into a reasonable blended culture.

Murders

Many things get killed off in a typical merger or acquisition. First, the culture of both groups is lost. What emerges often is unsatisfactory to both groups of people. It is amazing to interview people in the throes of an M&A, because often people in both groups believe they got the shaft and the other group received the lion’s share of benefits. Motivation is squandered when a culture is murdered. People are lost, walking around like zombies, not knowing if they even have a job, let alone exactly what that job might be.

Another fatality is customer service. While most people in both groups are in disarray, and this can take years to fix, the customer assumes second place. Survival for each individual becomes paramount. The customers do not care at all about the merger or its success; the customers just want high quality products on time and at the expected price. They expect rapid and friendly service if something goes wrong, but they find it hard to even contact people, let alone get swift answers to technical problems.

Death also comes swiftly to teamwork. In most situations there will be future job cuts. This realization pits people against each other. One can observe all kinds of backstabbing activities or even outright sabotage. Sometimes cliques will emerge where groups are openly combative in the mad scramble for ultimate survival.

Apparitions

There are numerous factors that, while not deathlike, will seem to be ghostly or somehow haunted. A good example is the development of people. Prior to the merger or acquisition, both entities have concrete development plans for most employees. During the transition, these plans are usually put on hold because nobody knows who the survivors are going to be. It takes a long time after the full integration happens to get back to a documented and well-understood plan for developing people.

Another apparition is communications. It turns out that during normal times, poor communication is the number one or number two complaint for most employees. Imagine how communication suffers when managers are totally preoccupied with putting out fires and there are no real answers to logical questions. The lack of solid information generally tends to add both time and cost to the process, which lowers the chances of success.

A third apparition is the spirit of the employees. Since the ultimate blended culture is going to be somewhat different than either of the two initial cultures, people quickly become discouraged. Therefore, during an extended period, there really is no definable culture for the organization. This exacerbates the problems.

A final example of an apparition is the role of HR. The HR departments of both the pre-merged entities were functioning as highly taxed groups struggling to keep up. In the merged configuration, HR is burdened with about three times the load of critical work at a time when many of the HR staff do not know if their own jobs are secure. The service level of HR appears ghostly to most employees because HR is in no condition to provide basic service, let alone meet the significantly enhanced challenges.

During a time of trying to integrate two entities into one, there are a multitude of problems and issues. A large percentage of these issues were not anticipated by the well-intended mangers who dreamed up the wonderful new configuration. With all the problems outlined above, it is no wonder people are extremely wary of mergers and acquisitions. It takes exceptional leadership to prevent chaos and loss of market share when organizations go through these major upheavals. The fact that some M&As do succeed is a testament to the skill and fortitude of the people involved in the successful ventures.


Death by Micromanagement

May 27, 2012

Everybody hates to be micromanaged. So why do so many managers do it? We know that overbearing, but well intended, managers micromanage all the time in an attempt to optimize performance. I will identify the cure for this habitual dilemma in this article.

The problem is that by micromanaging people, the manager is severely limiting performance rather than optimizing it, so the manager is operating at cross purposes to his stated goal. Unwittingly, the manager is removing incentive for effort and creativity on the part of the employee. We are so familiar with this problem simply because it is rampant in our organizations (Bielaszka-DuVernay, Harvard Business Review, June 23, 2008). Let us contrast micromanagement versus trust to give some insight on how the latter leads to greatly enhanced performance.

To micromanage someone implies a lack of trust. The manager is not confident the employee can or will do a job correctly, so the employee is besieged with “helpful” instructions from the manager on exactly how to perform tasks. At first, the intrusion is simply irritating to the employee, who has her own ideas on how to do the job. After a while, it degenerates into an opportunity to check out mentally and join the legion of disenchanted workers doing what they are told and collecting a paycheck. This leaves the employee’s power on the door step of the organization every day.

Another drawback is that employees will try to avoid a manager who tends to micromanage, simply to reduce the aggravation. This leads to a circular decline, where the manager has less and less information, so he tries even harder to intervene and direct activities. This makes people want to avoid him even more.

To trust an employee is to think enough of the person to treat him or her as a thinking person who can have good ideas if given a goal and some broad operating parameters. In an environment of trust, employees have the freedom to explore, innovate, create, stretch, and yes, sometimes make mistakes. These mistakes can be thought of as waste, but enlightened leaders think of them simply as learning opportunities.

Here are nine ideas that can help leaders and managers reduce the tendency to micromanage, thus unleashing a greater portion of the power available to the organization.

1. Set clear goals and make sure your employees have the basic skills and tools to do the job.
2. Be clear on the broad constraints within which the employee must operate. In other words do not let the employee try to conquer the world with a tuna-fish can.
3. Express trust in the employee and encourage creativity and risk taking as long as the risks are well-considered and safe.
4. Reject the temptation to step in if the employee seems to struggle, rather make yourself available if there are any questions or requests for help.
5. Provide the resources the employee needs to accomplish the tasks.
6. Do not totally overload the employee with so many duties and projects that she cannot succeed at any of them.
7. Express praise and gratitude for positive baby steps along the way.
8. Give the employee time and space to try different approaches without having to explain why she is doing every step.
9. If problems occur, consider them as learning experiences and ask the employee to describe how she will do things differently next time.

These nine ideas are all simple, but they are nearly impossible for a micromanager to accomplish without constant effort. The concept of trusting employees does involve some risk, but the rewards of having people working up to their full potential rather than just complying is well worth that risk. You will see better, faster, and more robust solutions if you trust people and let their natural talents surface in an environment of less micromanagement.