Have you ever been amazed by what some organizations are willing to tolerate from their leaders? Maybe you’ve worked for someone who made you and others unhappy and frustrated by frequently yelling, demeaning, or even cursing at employees. Maybe the treatment was so bad that you and the others struggled to come to work. Or maybe the toxicity was subtler, like taking credit for the work of others, or keeping people from assignments that would lead to career growth. Or perhaps, fear and manipulation were the primary means of management.
After 20 years of organizational consulting, I’m still surprised and dismayed by the lack of accountability that exists in some organizations concerning poor leadership. Despite the fact that in many cases they know of the dysfunctional behavior and the associated negative effects on the environment and performance on others, they still allow them to continue in their role far longer than they should. Why? Here are the most common excuses given:
- No one else is readily available to fill the position – This is a relatively common reason given and sounds something like, “I don’t have a replacement.” Here they figure that keeping the person is better than taking a chance on an unknown or having the position go unfilled.
- The leader is seen as someone of significance to the operation of the organization, such as a top salesman or a prominent surgeon – This can seriously put the organization in a bind. On the one hand, the individual is a shining star, excelling above others in terms of performance and results. On the other hand, no one can stand working for the person. Firing the person may send them straight into the arms of a competitor, but keeping the person risks damaging the culture and losing good people. It’s a risk that companies are often not willing to take.
- They hope that the problem will just go away – I love this one. This is the classic stick your head in the sand and it will all just get better approach. I’m sure you can guess how often this method works.
- The behavior is chalked up to as, “Oh, that’s just the way he is. Once you get to know him he’s fine.”– Typically, the person has been “spoken to.” The behavior improves for a short time but returns again to haunt everyone.
- The person has an “in” with some higher authority – Maybe they were in the same organization years ago, perhaps their kids are best friends or maybe they both are active members of the same church.
- More senior leaders don’t believe a problem exists —Bad leaders tend to be on their best behavior around people who matter to them in the organization. As a result, key decision makers don’t experience the behavior and often aren’t able to face up to the truth or the reality of the situation.
- Senior leaders know that the problem behaviors exist, but don’t fully grasp the consequences of them to employees and the broader organization – One of the more extreme examples I’ve seen of this occurred years ago when I was asked to determine why a prominent business unit of a large organization was experiencing substantial turnover. After an intensive assessment and analysis, I presented my findings to the executives who engaged me on the project. I explained a pattern of abusive and ethically questionable behavior by the Vice President of that division that was permeating negativity throughout the department. After sharing the details, they agreed that the real question in the case was not, “Why do people leave,” rather it was, “Why would people want to stay and work in this toxic environment?” The decision was tough, but ultimately they removed the VP from his role.
It is common practice for organizations to spend significant time and resources on trying to enhance employee engagement. In my experience, that time and money would be better spent on developing leaders and rigorously exiting any leader that demonstrates toxic behavior. By focusing on this, employee engagement would rise dramatically!