Remediating Toxic Managers II: Better Solutions

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 05-12-2005

Remediating Toxic Managers II: Better Solutions

In a previous column, I discussed how to identify toxic managers using tools from Jean Lipman-Blumen's insightful book, "The Allure of Toxic Leaders."

If you still can't recognize a Toxie, I strongly recommend seeing the film "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," a documentary about a company that, while it wasn't even close to the most toxic work environment of the last decade, has gotten the widest publicity.

Having recognized a Toxie—typically a manager who manipulates others to their detriment for his own aggrandizement—what should you do about it?

Lipman-Blumen lays out a set of choices including some perfectly reasonable ones I understand but don't recommend. In the face of toxic leadership that has some control over your work or personal life, you have to take action—doing nothing is, in itself, a choice, and the worst possible one.

Here are her five options:

  • Counsel the toxic leader to help him improve.

  • Quietly work to undermine the Toxie.

  • Join with others to confront the leader.

  • Join with others to overthrow the leader.

  • Leave the organization.
  • Things you can do alone

    You can counsel the leader—mentor him or her. Lipman-Blumen includes an example from her experience where a not-for-profit organization with highly dedicated staff had an executive director who appeared great during the interview process but turned out to have poor people skills and a habit of disparaging the past good works of the agency.

    One of the key contributors finally made it her mission to save the agency and the leader's tenure by meeting with the executive director to bring up the issues. Through persistent contact and buffering between the executive director and the staff, she was able to make the arrangement functional.

    The author has met and researched more Toxies than I have, but I've never met one who could be reformed. If you're going to try this method, be extra careful; don't even consider it unless the Toxie is a truly irreplaceable talent (think Barry Bonds, not someone who is a legend in his own mind).

    Another approach, to quietly subvert the Toxie, is an innately toxic move itself, although intended for a greater good. As the author asks: "When, if ever, is toxicity deserving of counter-toxicity?" She does not provide a satisfying answer.

    The structural problem inherent in undermining a Toxie relates to Angus' Eighth Law: All human organizations tend to be self-amplifying. While unhealthy organizations already tend to reward toxic behaviors and promote Toxies, the benefit of trying to leverage that to make the organization "better" is short-term at best. Peers see that toxicity works and the message gets reinforced. Best to leave this approach alone unless you are quite disempowered and have no alternatives.

    You can leave—get out of dodge, do what people in teen horror movies foolishly never try to do until it's too late. This is a real option and, I suggest, a decent one, even if you have to take a pay cut to get out. Organizations that tolerate or reward toxic behaviors are heading for an inevitable fall. The way they fall is variable but usually don't involve golden parachutes for many; they usually implode very quickly, with a lot of bloodshed, à la Enron. Sudden implosions leave little wiggle room for the individual who chooses to leave only when forced to and not before.

    And as I stated in my previous column, 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.

    Next page: Building a coalition and using it.

    Page Two

    Lipman-Blumen argues well and has persuaded me that Toxies just get stronger with every unsuccessful attempt to correct them or push them aside, adding defensive techniques to their repertoires. Plus, they already excel at isolating out an individual for torment or targeting.

    She suggests joining with others to confront the leader. Just as a baseball team in a slump won't fire all the players, the bigger your coalition, the harder it is to erase at one stroke. The Toxie's counter-approach is to try to fracture the coalition by firing some individuals or buying off a few. A confrontation, too, leaves the leader—reformed behavior or not—in place. That, in my opinion, is a poor idea.

    When you have no alternative, this is a workable approach as long as you invest heavily in building and maintaining the coalition—it needs to be nurtured every hour because the Toxie is going to try to smash it and its members.

    Lipman-Blumen's final approach is the one I generally favor: Join with others to overthrow the leader by meeting with him or her overtly. Again, the author believes that this only happens with a coalition with multiple constituencies (perhaps outsiders like customers or board members). And, I re-assert, you need to invest heavily in building and maintaining the coalition to survive the counter-assault.

    Let me add an important lagniappe to the author's advice: Don't hire Toxies, and if you have them, don't promote them.

    Most organizations are not healthy enough to have natural immunity to Toxies. I urge you to stop them in the two spots where it's easiest and least expensive in resources and casualties.

    Don't hire them in the first place. Create whatever mechanisms you need to prevent them from getting in the door. One of my client companies was a very clever West Coast distributor of components. They were smart about people, but they liked to hire the "best" salespeople—those who were the best closers.

    They knew they were taking some risk by hiring people who cared more about winning now than long-term relationships, but they had sophisticated technology to track accounts and felt they could control the reaction. They were wrong. One saleswoman stole some accounts and set up her own business (which failed), and a regional sales manager figured out how to spoof the tracking system to reward himself and select reps he had hired who kicked back some pelf to him.

    I'll say it again: Unless you have no choice, don't hire someone you believe doesn't understand a shared fate—that in the long-term not only does he need to win, but the organization does too, equally.

    Repair the flawed process that allows Toxies to advance

    Don't promote them. You probably already have Toxies in the ranks of employees or even managers. Unless you are at death's door and have no other alternatives, do not promote them. If you can't move them out, you will have to invest resources constantly in keeping them from advancing to a wider span of control. Don't forget, they are very seductive as well as ruthless—the Ted Bundys of organizational development.

    Whatever you do, though, don't wait for everything to turn ugly before you act.