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.




Didn’t You Read My Email?

May 21, 2019

My work on leadership development often focuses on communication. Reason: Poor communication is the #1 complaint in most employee satisfaction surveys.

One cause of the problem is that many managers think they have communicated when they send out an email.

In a recent edition of the Trust Barometer, Richard Edelman measured that about 60% of workers say they need to hear information about a company 3-5 times before they are likely to believe it.

The implication is that the bar has been raised on the number of times managers need to communicate a consistent message before people are likely to internalize it.

The sad truth is that many managers put information in an email and honestly believe they have communicated to people. Hogwash! Let’s examine some of the reasons this opinion is incorrect.

People rarely read long and complex emails

Managers who put out technically well-worded messages have a vision that the employees will hang onto every word and absorb all the careful “spin.” It’s just not true.

If it takes more than about 30 seconds to read a note, most people will only skim it for the general topic and assume they understand the message.

If a manager puts out a note that is 3 pages long and takes 15 minutes to read, I suspect not 1 in 10 people are going to internalize the meaning.

In fact, when most people open a note and see that the text goes “over the horizon” beyond the first page, they either delete the note without reading it or close the note and leave it in the inbox for a more convenient time.

Naturally, a more convenient time does not surface, so the note is allowed to mold in cold storage like last week’s opened cheese.

Written information needs to be augmented with verbal enhancements

The written email should contain simply an outline of the salient points. True meaning should be obtained by reinforcing the key points face to face.

This vital step would also include the opportunity for personal involvement or at least dialog, so people can ponder the meaning and impact. Questions for clarification will enhance understanding.

Sensitive topics need a third exposure (and maybe a fourth)

Use some form of summary hand out, YouTube video, voicemail, text, Skype, conference call, newsletter, or podcast to solidify the information.

Make action items clear

If action is required, the succinct message of who, what, and when needs to be highlighted in bold text.

Formatting is really important

Email notes should be as short and easy to digest as possible. Aim to have the message internalized at a glance and with only 15-30 seconds of attention.

• State the objective and main point up front
• Use bullets for key points
• Avoid long complex sentences
• Summarize in a brief statement at the end

Note the use of bullets eliminates wordy construction. Use the “Golden Rule” for writing e-mails; “Write notes that you would enjoy receiving,” and utilize many different forms of communication rather than relying on just email.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind


Stretched Too Thin?

July 22, 2012

We hear that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If you are a manager, one sure thing is that people will tell you there are not enough employees to do the job. I have yet to find an organization where the workers do not feel stretched beyond their ability.

Productivity makes an interesting study, because most behavioral scientists agree that in any organization the actual productivity is a small fraction of the capability inherent in the people. Research reported by the Gallup Organization in 2010 indicates that for average organizations, only 33% of the workers are engaged, 49% of them are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. This low productivity is usually not the fault of the workers, but the result of a poor culture established by top leaders.

The paradox here is that while there is a perpetual outcry for more people in most organizations, the human resources that are available are grossly underutilized. By establishing a culture of higher trust, managers can change the equation dramatically.

We do not need more people; we need better utilization of the people we already have. How do we solve the age-old mystery of getting higher levels of effort and engagement on the part of people? The irony is that when managers look to improve productivity, they often focus on numerous other things and forget that true productivity lies with the motivation of people.

For example, I read an interesting article on productivity in the Encyclopedia of Management 2006, which gives 17 ways to improve productivity in an organization. They are:

1. capital investments in production
2. capital investments in technology
3. capital investments in equipment
4. capital investments in facilities
5. economies of scale
6. workforce training and experience
7. technological changes
8. work methods
9. procedures
10. systems
11. quality of products
12. quality of processes
13. quality of management
14. legislative and regulatory environment
15. general levels of education
16. social environment
17. geographic factors

Notice the amazing lack of motivational aspects in this list. The only factor in the whole list that has much to do with motivation is item 13, quality of management. True, we can improve productivity with capital investments or systems, but the real gold is changing the morale of the people doing the work. That takes an investment of a different kind. My thesis is that the missing ingredient in productivity is trust.

The Trust Across America Organization has gathered some compelling data over the past decade that shows corporations with high trust achieve 500-600% greater returns than the S&P 500. So productivity, and the resulting profits, are available if we can only educate leaders on how to build and maintain higher trust. That revelation means we can stop whining about not enough people and start focusing more effort on the skills needed to grow trust.

Improving the level of trust in an organization starts at the very top. The most senior managers must recognize it is their behaviors and the signals they send that set the tone for everything that happens in their organization. There are several groups and consultants, including myself, who specialize in helping organizations understand the pathways to higher trust.

I recommend that all top managers have a key thrust to change their behavior patterns so that trust begins to grow from the highest levels. Once started, the improvement in trust will naturally flow down through the entire organization, and the first thing you know, the outcry for more people will become muted. The employees are there just waiting to put their shoulder into the work once they are treated the right way.