Here are the 3 of the 9 cardinal pitfalls to avoid when managing a brilliant but toxic leader. A case study based on a real story will serve as a platform of discussion.
Why is managing a brilliant but toxic leader important?
Employees chose companies to work for but often leave because of their leader’s toxic behavior. This is the outcome of the 2003 Gallup study that interviewed 2 million co-workers working at 700 companies. The American Psychological Association estimated that bullying and other types of abusive behaviors cost businesses $300 billion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover, as well as in increased medical costs Clay’s research finds that healthier workplaces have a link to increased profitability. Therefore, the leader’s toxic behavior needs to be addressed and this blog will review the six cardinal pitfalls to avoid when confronting an abrasive leader.
A toxic leader can reduce an individual’s confidence, engagement, and creativity resulting in absenteeism, employee turnover or stress related illnesses. Katrina Burrus, PhD, MCC
Let’s look at a case study of a brilliant and toxic leader
Dr. Peter Fitch manages an important division of this multinational company. He has turned around his division where others have failed. However, in the last nine months, he has had four terrible arguments with his direct reports and four of them have left his division or quit.
One of his direct reports filed the company for harassment and another accused him of discrimination.
The company’s CEO told you, Jean Nanchen, the Human Resource Partner (HRP) that the CEO is going to fire Dr. Peter Fitch in the next six months if Peter’s abrasive behavior does not change for the better. The department is now in jeopardy. More and more work is done by less and less people. The CEO is concerned that the division’s sustainability is in peril. HRP has been asked to coach Dr. Fitch to improve his behavior.
How might we react to this situation?
- Decide to talk to Peter? Ask Peter why he behaves the way he does?
- Send him on an interpersonal development workshop?
- Tell him he should be nicer to his direct reports or that his leadership style is aggressive or authoritative?
- Or ask him what is going on. Two people have left his division.
How might the conversation between the Human Resource Partner and the Toxic Leader unfold?
Human Resource Partner: “Four people have left your department. I receive too many complaints from your direct reports. Might you be too authoritarian?”
Peter: “My direct reports need to meet the necessary standards. These four people were incompetent and it is a good riddance that they left. They were lazy.”
Human Resource Partner: “You need to be nicer with your direct reports; I have had too many people come complaining in my office.
Peter: I am not here to hold people’s hand or be liked, they are here to work. Who cares if they don’t like me? They respect me.
Human Resource Partner: Do you realize you are putting the department in jeopardy when so many people have left your department?
Peter: Do you hear me too when I tell you that these direct reports were lazy and incompetent!
Human Resource Partner: Are you motivating them in the right way?
Peter: Don’t tell me how to manage my division. I am working for a profit center that has gone from losing money to creating revenue. Excuse me…. but what do you know about profit centers when you are a staff, a cost center. I am bringing the revenue to pay your salary.
A toxic leader’s followers begin to protect themselves against the leader’s mood rather than doing what is best for the company. Katrina Burrus, PhD MCC
How shall we avoid the first 3 cardinal pitfalls when addressing a toxic leader as a Human Resource Partner?
A toxic leader often destroys a team’s inventiveness, provokes passive resistance and generally reduces morale. Katrina Burrus, PhD, MCC
Peter is highly focused on results but lacks the interpersonal competence required to bring people on board with him. Using his power over others is usually his preferred modus operandi if not the only way he knows how to get results.
If Peter has a tunnel vision on reaching financial results combined with a total lack of emotional intelligence, he is likely to consider a workshop on interpersonal skills as a total waste of time. If the suggestion comes from HRP, it would further reinforce his impression that what HRP does is rather useless and a distracting from getting business results.
Although HRP would have correctly identified Peter’s lack of emotional intelligence, directing the conversation to improving Peter’s interpersonal behavior would be equivalent to asking a blind man to describe colors. If Peter is totally unaware of the consequences of his interpersonal behavior, Peter would most likely deny the incident’s importance.
Pitfall no. 1: Talk about improving relationships when the toxic leader is interpersonally blind
In this case, by the time I was called in as a corporate coach, Peter had already received several 360 Degree Feedback reports that highlighted his problem relationships with his employees. He was also strongly encouraged by his CEO to follow a workshop on developing interpersonal skill. Peter did so to no avail. He was pleasant the first day back but it was even more disconcerting for his direct reports when he went back to his old behavior a few days later. So even if Peter is aware of the detrimental effect of his behavior on others, this does not mean he knows how to change.
Pitfall no. 2: Expect that the toxic leader knows how to change
He might also have ambivalent feelings about changing his behavior as it has made him successful to date. “He most likely credits his success to his drive for results, his ambition and demanding behavior. It is part of his belief system. So this is how we get ahead in corporations.
Peter’s belief system = Hard work + drive himself + drive others + ambition + not being weak interpersonally= results
Pitfall no. 3: Expect Peter to think that if he drives his people less and has good interpersonal relationships that he will obtain similar results
Why coaching can be beneficial.
- Challenge Peter’s belief system that results can be better with good interpersonal relationships
- Gathering extensive data on how the leader is perceived in sufficient detail to create a specific action plan (from the Boss Whispering Institute)
- Support Peter to widen his array of leadership styles from overusing the coercive and authoritative leadership style to integrating other leadership styles such as the democratic, coaching, affiliative leadership style.
Have you dealt with such a leader before? What was your experience? Thank you for sharing. (Les commentaires en français sont les biens venues)
Member of the Boss Whispering Institute
1(Clay, 2010). Retrieved April 30, 2011, from the Boss Whispering Institute.
2 360 Degree Feedback report is feedback from the boss, peers, and direct reports.
3Leadership that Gets Results by Daniel Golemen HBR.