Opinion: It takes a lot of decent managers to create a good organization. But it only takes one talented, toxic manager to ruin an organization.
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.
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.
This article was originally published on 05-03-2005
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