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.
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.
This article was originally published on 05-03-2005