Recognizing Toxic Management and Crushing It

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 05-03-2005

Recognizing Toxic Management and Crushing It

With the job market a little healthier in most regions than it has been in four years, it's time to gird your loins and participate in a dangerous but useful workplace sport: purging the toxic waste among you.

While only a small minority of all the managers in large American organizations, the presence of Toxies (toxic people) in leadership positions is far more common than it should be, and dealing with the situation can be a bloodbath.

The word toxic has taken on a lot of meanings, and more widespread use of it has made its definition fuzzy - a dangerous precursor to not being able to quickly identify and deal with it.

There are a lot of tools management consultants use to recognize it, but I have a new favorite, which is in a book that came out last year that was reviewed by Paul Brown.

Most people know that a toxic manager is one who manipulates others for his own aggrandizement.

What most seem not to know, though, is that the behaviors and actions of the toxic manager actually degrade the quality of work, morale and even the stability of an organization.

It's not just unpleasant, it undermines workplace productivity and inevitably the bottom line, too.

Jean Lipman-Blumen's "The Allure of Toxic Leaders" - except for the usual business-book publisher-enforced padding and C-level name dropping - is remarkably insightful on the species.

Much of what gives the volume value is that it's as much about recognizing the motivations of the people who follow or tolerate toxic behaviors as it is about the toxic wasters themselves.

Original Insights

That's a useful balance, because to actually do anything about a toxic manager, people have to recognize why they allow themselves to be paralyzed or even hornswoggled by charming incompetents who gut an organization's prospects for their own gratification. That's the first step; they still have to follow up with forceful action.

Forceful action against toxic people, especially those in leadership positions, is almost as risky to the actor as not doing anything, which is why I mentioned the job market.

While healthy organizations have ways of dealing with and controlling toxic people, unhealthy organizations (the vast majority) don't.

Absent those controls, toxic people are more likely to ascend into leadership positions or be allowed to build political bulwarks to protect themselves from those who would protect the organization.

That makes it somewhat more likely the Toxies will triumph and those who would put them in their place will need to find alternative employment.

That doesn't mean, of course, one shouldn't plan and execute the operation.

To the contrary, if you do decent work, no unhealthy organization deserves you and any organization willing to let the toxics win isn't one you need to be in.

In a "getting-by" job market, you have alternatives that are better than either refusing to take on the Toxies while suffering their consequences for them or putting up resistance and losing.

A getting-by job market makes the benefit/cost ratio much higher for acting than it does for cowering. A decent one makes it a slam-dunk.

Recognizing the Toxic Ones

Because the vernacular has absorbed the adjective "toxic" and smudged up the definition, just recognizing who is and who isn't toxic has become difficult for most people.

Next page: Ten Habits of Highly Destructive People.

Ten Habits of Highly

Destructive People">

One of the valuable tools in the Lipman-Blumen book is a clear list of the destructive behaviors of toxic leaders and wannabes. Here are my top 10, culled from her longer list:

Degrading:They ignore incompetence or promote incompetent people, undermining those who provide their paycheck, in order to buffer their own position.

Replicating toxicity:They build dynastic cadres of equally toxic adherents, promote them within the Toxie's own department or help them get promoted in other departments.

Immobilizing:They immobilize the careers of anyone who might help the organization because they view others' success as potentially competitive.

Illusion-casting:They consciously feed their followers' illusions that enhance the toxic leader's own power and impair the autonomy of their staff.

Wasting:They erode the quality of life and career prospects of others, by intimidating, seducing, demeaning, disenfranchising and especially undermining their work product or careers.

Violating:They violate the basic human rights of people who allow them to do it, even if those people are their own followers.

Stifling:They build a set of reinforcements that make questioning or even suggesting improvements in the toxic leader's ideas a career-threatening move.

Subverting accountability:They use the rules to constrain others' operational flexibility and work when it's convenient to reinforce their will but subvert the process whenever it's not.

Scapegoating:They invent scapegoats, torment them and seduce others into following their lead. Since they need scapegoats, they rarely act to fix a problem before it becomes one. To make this more effective, they are also constantly showing favoritism and shower certain people with temporary praise to give staff the illusion that there are safe spots close to the Toxie.

Booby-trapping: They design defensive arrangements structured so the costs of moving them aside will trigger the downfall of the organization. (Remember the Dynegy guy who told employees if they didn't lie for him, he'd make sure they went down first?)

What's interesting to me about Lipman-Blumen's list is if you ask these questions to judge whether someone is toxic or not, it's been my experience in consulting and on staff that there are almost no grey cases.

You'll honestly find individuals either fit zero to two of these destructive behaviors, or virtually all of them. I've never worked with or for someone who displayed half or two-thirds of them.

You can use the insightful "Allure of Toxic Leaders" model to identify not only toxic leaders but, more importantly, people who hold the potential for toxicity, before they get into a position where they wield significant power.

Preventing those people from advancing is the single highest reward/risk move you can make in controlling the organizational damage Toxies can spray around.

Lipman-Blumen has tools for responding to the toxic manager, and in the next column, I'll describe them so you will be armed for some of the most necessary and important fights of your career.

It's never too soon to start planning the removal of human toxic waste.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun.

Read part 2 of this article to see how to remediate toxic management..