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 subvertthe 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.

CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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