Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is There an Antidote?

Toxic leaders are said to charm, manipulate and undermine their followers intentionally leaving them worse off than when they entered the scene. Perhaps you've worked for one...or two. You probably struggled with the politics of the situation, felt like you were walking on egg shells just waiting for one to break and a big mess would become yours, and you would get the blame.

Chaleff in his book Courageous Follower would still encourage us to speak up, give feedback to the leader (after some preparation, of course), give support to the organization's goal and purpose. We might also need the courage to leave.

Jean Lipman-Blumen in an article published in the Ivey Business Journal suggests several personal and organizational options to overcome a toxic boss. The personal options are: 1) do some investigation on the boss's history; 2) create a coalition; 3) avoid confronting the boss alone; 4) if you must, create a strategy to undermine and oust the boss; and 5) lastly, you can always leave. Organizationally, she suggests term limits, 360 degree reviews for feedback to the boss, "respectable departure options" and a democratic selection process.

Unfortunately, Chaleff and Lipman-Blumen ignore the fact that a significant portion of our organizations are composed of people with High S as a behavioral style--the amiable types. These people don't want to rock the boat, or experience any change that might induce insecurity. They avoid confrontation and any hints of conflict. Good luck finding enough High D's--drivers, dominating, seeking challenge and action behavioral types. Creating a coalition is going to tough. Finding enough people willing to go together to confront the boss will be even less probable.

Also, we know from Coens' and Jenkins' work (Abolishing Performance Appraisals) that 360 reviews are fraught with biases and inaccuracies. ("If I tell her she's doing a good job as boss, maybe she'll say the same about me.") If the toxic boss reports to the board, we know most boards are ineffective in discovering the leader is toxic. In addition, there's a conflict of interest where the directors "owe" their position and pay to the leader. Most toxic leaders have surrounded themselves with an entourage through which truth has difficulty penetrating.

Even if you have a great opportunity and are extremely persuasive in convincing the toxic boss to change his ways, nothing will change. Despite a crisis, 67-90% of us still continue to act the same way, making the same decisions that led us into the crisis originally. CEO's who are heart disease patients still continue the same habits that got them into trouble. As long as the bad leader behavior occasionally gets results, it will be enough to encourage the toxic boss to continue doing what he has always done. "Oh, so-and-so doesn't know what they're talking about. It sounded right. But it doesn't work. My way is working. That's why I'm the boss."

If you work for the Devil who wears Prada, I think your choices are two: pray for a miracle (perhaps your boss will be a ten-percenter and actually change) and/or leave.

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