September 2015 Newsletter

Check out my September Newsletter: Leadership: The Secret Sauce? Managers not MBAs, Beware of Assessments, and more  Jean Ann Larson September Newsletter

The Cost of Toxic Leadership

Are you the cause of low productivity, low employee engagement and high turnover in your organization? Or do you know leaders who would provide more value to their organizations, if they stayed away from the office? A recent study shows how toxic bosses wreak havoc on teamwork (Adams, 2014). A related finding is that targets of an abusive boss’s ridicule will often turn around and start abusing other team members. This then makes the environment more toxic as everyone devolves into negative and competitive conflict. Sadly, I’ve witnessed this among senior executive teams. In one case the CEO was widely known as a narcissistic bully. His executive suite seemed to have a revolving door where executives came and went. New executives would arrive on the scene as great heroes but within 6- 18 months the CEO would turn on them. For those VPs who wanted to survive and remain in the organization, they had to basically become just like him and turn on their own peers and direct reports. Leaders with options quickly left.

So what do bosses do to demoralize employees? Here are some common examples:

  • They micromanage and second guess their direct reports despite the fact that the direct reports have more expertise and experience than the boss.
  • They walk away from a conversation because they lose interest (I was once called out on this – OUCH!).
  • They take calls in the middle of a meeting without walking out – this applies not only to bosses. I was recently on a client site where the team was discussing next steps. One participant didn’t just receive a phone call, he MADE it and then began an unrelated conversation with another party in a very loud voice.
  • Bosses may openly mock people by pointing out alleged flaws or personality quirks in front of others.
  • They remind their subordinates of their role and title in the organization.
  • They take credit for wins while pointing the finger at others when problems arise.

Employees who are harmed by these behaviors quickly learn to stop sharing ideas and they hold back throwing any hope of innovation out the window.

So why do managers say that they behave like bullies? They say that they are overloaded and don’t have time to be nice. But seriously? Is being respectful all that time-consuming? Being respectful on a regular basis makes it easier to navigate through both good and bad times leading to higher levels of productivity, more innovation and lower turnover. And, what if you had another type of behavior that derailed your success and had such a negative impact on your organization’s productivity and bottom line? Wouldn’t you want to change it? Research has proven that incivility and bullying hijack workplace focus. According to a survey of 4500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct to medical errors, and 27 percent tied these behaviors to patient deaths.

In two separate studies Bennett Tepper of Ohio State found that nearly 14% of US workers are subject to abusive supervisors. Because of the damage these mean bosses cause, Tepper estimates that abusive supervision costs companies $23.8 billion a year. Clearly no amount of automation, process improvement, six sigma or lean management techniques (not that we should ever stop the continuous improvement journey) can overcome the bad impact of these mean bosses.

So what can you do if your boss is a bully?

  1. First and foremost, do not doubt your self-worth. If you’ve been successful in your career up until this boss, the issue is with him or her, not you.
  2. Draw on your own inner resources and tell friends and loved ones outside work about your difficult boss. They can be your allies by listening and affirming your competence and value as a human being.
  3. Accept the fact that though you may love the company and the job, the boss may not make it possible for you to stay in your position. Keep your options open.
  4. Check out the additional strategies for survival in Robert Sutton’s book referenced below.

What if you are the bully? (If you’re not sure whether or not you’re a bully, take the self-assessment in Robert Sutton’s book referenced below.)

  • Accept the fact that your behaviors are hurting your organization’s productivity and ability to innovate.
  • Work on improving your emotional intelligence – particularly self-awareness and self-regulation.
  • Get an executive coach to help you improve your leadership effectiveness. Studies done by the University of Southern California and the Center for Creative Leadership have shown that the number one characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.
  • Reconsider your behavior: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down. Understand that if they look good you do too.
  • Also, you do NOT, I repeat do NOT have to be the smartest person in the room. Give your people a chance.

Do you have other strategies that have worked for you when dealing with toxic bosses? Drop me a line.

For more strategies on how to deal with bullies in the workplace, I recommend the book, The No A–hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert I Sutton. It is well researched and very practical. Starting on page 121 of the paperback copy of the book, you can even take a quick self-test called, Are you a certified A-Hole? Signs that your Inner Jerk is Rearing Its Ugly Head (Sutton, 2007)

Best practices for leading teams


When I first started my business, I interviewed over 50 leaders in a variety of industries asking them to identify their top three challenges, what they were doing to overcome those challenges and what they felt were key competencies for leaders in the future. One of the top challenges across all industries was the need to identify and develop our future leaders. One of the most important competencies identified for those future leaders is their ability to lead teams. The challenges we face are so complex that we cannot expect to go it alone as a leader. And, one of the most effective instruments we have as leaders to influence culture is through strong teams. Based upon that earlier research and my own experience, I offer a few best practices:

  1. Make sure that you are actually leading a team and not just a group of people who report to you. In order to do this you’re going to have to treat that group of people as a team. How do you do that? By having regular team meetings that highlight the team goals and the collaboration required to meet those goals. (One client shared with me that she only met one-on-one with her direct reports so as to not waste their time in meetings. When I pointed out the benefit of having everyone focused on the same goals and collaborating and executing on those goals, a lot more work could get done, she quickly adopted brief, weekly team meetings.)
  2. Make sure that the team goals are clear to the team and that everyone knows his or her role as well as the mission, vision and role of the team in the organization.
  3. Communicate clearly within the team. A way to jump start this is to understand your own and others’ communication styles in order to more effectively communicate and use your individual differences for better problem-solving and decision-making.
  4. Meeting etiquette is key – Make sure that you have an agenda, meeting purpose and a set of ground rules for all your meetings.
  5. Manage the good and the bad behaviors. Make sure that everyone’s opinion is heard and do not allow any sort of bullying, such as interruptions, dissing of someone else’s input, etc. I usually try to address bad behavior as immediately as possible, both during the meeting and then later to make sure that my message was heard.
  6. Defer to the wisdom of your team. Sometimes as leaders we can shut down team members. Understand your communication style and flex it to bring out the best in others on the team.
  7. Improve your own emotional intelligence and know your trigger points.
  8. Be mindful of group behavior and use assessments and other ways to get to know yourself and to help the team learn and grow.

Strong teams are our best weapon for improving the effectiveness of our organizations. Per W. Edwards Deming, “Research shows that the climate of an organization influences an individual’s contribution far more than the individual himself.” Creating strong teams are one of the quickest routes to improving the climate of the organization.