After four months of research, blogging and networking with dozens and dozens of people in the Learning & Development and Leadership community, I've finally found the answers I was looking for. There is a solution for #LeadershipReform and eradicating toxic leaders from the workplace. This 10-minute read could change lives!
Let me recap how I got here.
I learned a critical lesson recently about the negative impact people leaders have on an organization. I've been championing #LeadershipReform ever since, because I witnessed first-hand how a previously high-performing team can very quickly be destroyed by a toxic leader.
There is an overwhelming number of studies available with scientific data that identify the characteristics of a GREAT Leader versus a toxic leader, and how a team's productivity is a DIRECT reflection of that leader... good or bad. Confirming that my simple formula for requiring that people leaders be humble, trustworthy, and selfless aligns directly with proven methodologies curated by thought leaders in the industry.
Leaders are also directly responsible for health/mental health wellness of their employees as it relates to their jobs. If an employee is happy in their job role, you can credit their manager. If an employee is miserable in their job role, dreads "showing up for work" every day, and frequently takes time off for their own mental well-being, you can credit their manager.
"Toxic leaders are one of the PRIMARY causes of the Great Resignation. Not the economy or the pandemic." -- Me, the DIY Leader
Regardless of the economy, people who are able to work and who report to a GREAT Leader will stay in their jobs, despite what is going on in the world. I've even seen numerous examples of people who are at or beyond "retirement age." However, they continue to work because their leader motivates them to want to continue to work.
The Great Resignation and global pandemic, instead, have motivated workers to stand up for themselves, reflect on their life's goals and direction, and take a wild leap out of their toxic work environments for one or more of the following reasons:
The pandemic has made it more acceptable for folks to be unemployed. Think about it. Being unemployed during "uncertain times" is a viable and widely accepted excuse for everyone. Suddenly, being unemployed no longer has a negative connotation to go along with it. Perspective employers are readily accepting, "because of the pandemic" as a quick and easy answer to explain recent employment gaps in candidates, and then quickly moving the conversation forward.
They now have other options. I'm astonished at the number of jobs that continue to be added daily to job sites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Even though many companies have had to downsize due to the pandemic and the resulting issues, just as many have found viable alternatives to keep the lights on and even thrive again. There is no shortage of jobs available out there, folks. So, it makes perfect sense that those who are miserable in their jobs are reprioritizing their own health and time with their friends and family, and are coming to the realization that they no longer have to stay in a miserable job.
People actually CAN be productive when working remotely. This is a big secret that many in the instructional design community have known for decades. MOST people can be trusted to not take advantage of the situation and are often more productive when working from home. When working remotely, you no longer encounter the usual interruptions experienced in an office environment, have more flexibility with your schedule and save numerous hours daily simply not having to change out of your pajamas or sit in traffic. When so many companies suddenly had to allow telecommuting in order to stay in business, many quickly realized that it could be done. And now, their employees are now demanding it. Therefore, those companies who are requiring employees to report back to the office (or classroom) are suddenly scrambling to backfill for all of their employees who've realized they now have other options.
"They're onto what the instructional designer community has known for decades. It is possible to work remotely. Suddenly now all the 'cool kids' are doing it." -- Me again, the DIY Leader
I mentioned the overwhelming amount of data and statistics that are available to support my argument for the need for #LeadershipReform. While the idea of toxic leaders is not new... it's astonishing to me how those in charge allow it to happen. There may be a few sitting in their ivory towers who don't realize it's going on (which is sad. However, I have a solution for them as well). But I have a difficult time believing that they don't know when they have a toxic leader in the ranks. If they pay any attention to the turnover rate and production, it's fairly simple to deduce.
So, let me share with you some of the data that I've run across that validates the impact leaders have on their employees and the workplace in general. The data is abundant and consistent. Here's a sampling of some that I've run across.
From comparecamp.com in their State of Leadership Development survey
Transparency is a very important consideration for leaders. However, only 18% of respondents believed their company had a transparent and open approach.
27% of leaders polled knew their lack of transparency created a competitive disadvantage.
Trust in leaders is the highest-ranked link to employee engagement, at 77%. It’s even higher than traditional motivators like organizational culture (73%) or opportunities for career growth (66%).
How to Bring Out the Best in Your People and Company article, quoting Brene Brown: An organization full of employees who believe they belong is an organization full of employees who feel purposeful, inspired, and alive -- in other words, engaged. And these engaged employees are more productive and better performers.
Your Business Strategy Hinges on Employee Engagement article: Employee engagement is a foundational component to workplace outcomes. If you want to talk about wellbeing, manager development, performance (and more), you also have to talk about employee engagement. Why? Because every conversation a manager has with an employee affects their engagement -- and engaged employees perform better, which differentiates you from your competitors. To drive real change within your teams, and to move the needle on the business metrics that matter, learn more about employee engagement in your organization.
How to Win the 'Great Resignation' article: In a June 2021 survey with Amazon, Gallup found that 57% of U.S. workers want to update their skills and 48% would consider switching jobs to do it. Well-developed managers are an unstoppable force. They attract, engage, and keep workers in an extremely competitive talent marketplace. They coach and rally employees to push your organization forward -- even as disruption shakes the ground. GREAT managers reduce turnover more effectively than any other role in your organization.
State of the Global Workplace 2021 Report: Leaders need to recognize the influence of employee wellbeing and employee engagement on workforce resilience. Globally, employee engagement decreased 2% worldwide in the last year. Only 20% of employees are engaged at work. This means that a large majority of employees in the world are either watching the clock or actively opposing their employer. Employees’ disengagement creates a drag on productivity, innovation and organizational change.
"Gallup estimates that low engagement costs the global economy US $8.1 trillion." --Gallulp State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report
From Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D.(international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management, Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University, author of the book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and How to Fix it)? and TEDx Talk presenter):
People who are more humble, sympathetic, and self-aware will be more likely to capitalize on critical feedback and translate it into self-awareness gains.
The profile of effective leaders today differs from that of our evolutionary past.
Traits such as confidence, narcissism, and charisma advance individuals' careers without improving the success of the group they lead. Clearly, we would be much better if we sifted out individuals with such traits, as opposed to rewarding them.
Women outscored men on 17 of the 19 categories that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones, including relationship building, collaboration, and communication. The only two categories where men lead were technical expertise and strategic perspective.
Lastly, an "oldie but goodie" that has too much information to even recap but shows the extreme severity of toxicity in the workplace, this 2015 Working Business Paper from Harvard Business School authored by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor.
Now we come to the part that I am so excited about and the part that will (hopefully) become the focus of my TEDx Talk. How can we fix this? It's going to take a village, but everyone can help.
If you are the CEO or business owner
In addition to the overall performance of your company, you are also ultimately responsible for the culture of your company. Whether or not you have first-hand knowledge of toxic leaders in your company, it's your responsibility. Invest in re-establishing a healthy culture in your organization.
Promote a people-first culture. Period. Your entire people leadership strategy should revolve around this philosophy. This includes your hiring practices, promotion practices, leadership metrics, leadership training and succession planning. If you have people leaders who aren't willing to abide by this philosophy, they are toxic. REMOVE them from people-leader roles and assign them as individual contributors if you insist on keeping them. They are single-handedly costing you an estimated 30% of your payroll in turnover costs. The overwhelming data that supports the profitability of a people-first approach should be enough to convince you. If you want to read more from the experts about what makes GREAT Leaders, check out this article, 5 Ways Organizations Can Encourage Employees to Fight Back Against Toxic Leadership, co-written by Amy Edmondson, Ph.D. (author of the book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, and Harvard Business School Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management) and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D (credited above).
Hire an executive coach to work with people leaders who need (and are willing to) reform. Many toxic leaders will not only admit they don't have a problem, but they genuinely don't believe they have a problem. That's because many of them are narcissists... which isn't curable. For those that are receptive to reform, know that this approach can be time consuming and costly. However, it doesn't come anywhere near the cost that you're currently paying in turnover costs and decreased productivity due to toxic leaders. There are hundreds of organizations and consultants out there that specialize in "rehabilitating" toxic leaders.
Make available to your employees a third-party, non-profit resource where they can report any grievances. Your HR department is not the answer. Your employees know HR's priority is to protect the company. There are organizations out there who specialize in helping resolve workplace issues. Kalyani Pardeshi, public speaker, author of Unbullied and a Quantum human design specialist who has dedicated her career to eradicating bullies, provided me with resources that could be great options. One example is a company called Anonymous Employee. This organization offers 1-way and 2-way anonymous communication mediums to give voice to employees, while also passing along anonymous feedback to companies to help inform them and facilitate resolution.
Support legislation against abusive work environments. The Workplace Bullying Institute is an organization that has been around for 25 years. They are key proponents of the WBI Healthy Workplace Bill, which they have been able to introduce in 32 states, but are still facing opposition by SHRM lobbyists. Get involved.
Implement an employee engagement survey program. The results should be a key metric for all people leaders. This works for both good and bad people leaders. Make a big freaking deal out of the good ones... and establish a remediation program for the bad ones who don't have acceptable scores on the "employee questions about their manager" section. Assume that many employees won't be entirely honest on this section of the survey because they feel as though they will be tracked down and retaliated against. Protect your employees. Just know that if a single manager receives negative feedback from more than one employee... pay attention. That's a pattern that indicates that it's not the employee, it's the leader. There are dozens of third-party organizations out there who provide this service. Read this article, 12 Best Employee Engagement Software Applications I recently ran across on teambuilding.com if you're looking for some fresh ideas.
If you are a people leader
Make your people your top priority. Your job will be extremely stressful and potentially overwhelming if you don't. You will burn out and you will take it out on your employees, your family, and your friends. TRUST in your employees. If you're a micro-manager, this indicates a lack of trust and ultimately makes your job harder. I promise, not all of your employees are the idiots you seem to think they are. Some of them might even know more than you! If you take care of your employees, they will take care of you and your KPIs, including the bottom line. If you listen to and respect their opinions, they will respect you.
Do some self-reflection to determine whether you are the problem. If you are a toxic leader... STOP IT! You are literally biting the hand that feeds you. Refer to #3 below for getting help. Although, toxic leaders are most likely not reading this article, because they don't see themselves as the problem. However, if you are reading this article and you're not sure if you're a toxic leader, just ask yourself one simple question, "How many of my employees have told me directly that I am one of the best bosses they have ever had?" If you have never heard this from even one of your employees, you're either new to your people-leader role (which means there's still hope for you) or you're a toxic leader. Full stop. Happy, engaged, productive employees know how rare GREAT leaders are and therefore feel compelled to let their leaders know in hopes of influencing them to stay.
If you are a toxic leader and you care to change your behavior... seek help! Then immediately stop acting like a bully. I promise you, if you are willing to "eat crow," admit to your mistakes, admit you don't have all the answers (no one expects you to, by the way) and ask your employees to help you become a better leader, then there is hope for you! The population of people who are most able to recognize a toxic leader are their direct reports. If you are a toxic leader, trust me, they have already lost respect for you. Some of them may be brown-nosing you, selfishly hoping to "ride your coat tails" (by the way, these are ALSO toxic people). However, the people who really matter, the ones who actually know how to do the job and are responsible for making you look good... they're already on to you. And they're comparing stories behind your back to try to determine whether they're losing their minds. As mentioned previously, toxic leaders usually have much more deep-seeded problems and therefore either don't know they're toxic or won't admit to it. But because they have such charisma or are such great orators, their toxicity is often overlooked unless or until someone higher up than them recognizes the behavior and takes steps to correct it. However, if a toxic leader takes it upon themself to proactively make a change... THIS could be the one career move that propels you further than any of your previous toxic behaviors combined.
If you are already a GREAT Leader, stay the course! YOU are a rock star, and the world needs more of you. I know from experience that you already have made your people your top priority and they are already loyal and productive. Here's how you can become part of the solution... when you feel your employees are ready, encourage them to "leave the nest" and become leaders themselves. This is a bittersweet process because they love you and most likely won't want to leave your team. However, what better way to infiltrate other areas of the business than with one of your employees who will use your leadership style as their guidepost? I know you have confidence that they can do it. Now you have to convince them to "go forth and prosper." It's the easiest way to combat a toxic working environment.
If you are a direct employee of a toxic leader
Confirm that it's not you, it's them. This is a big "first step" in determining whether you are being unfairly targeted. Speak with a trusted co-worker who also reports to your boss. If they confirm your impression, proceed to step #2 below. However, if their experience is entirely different from yours... do your homework. You may have legal recourse if they are specifically bullying you due to a protected class status (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.). In these scenarios, it's imperative that you document your experiences in detail, and then involve HR. If your boss bullies everyone equally (as mine did), you don't have a case and HR won't be of much help. You also don't have a case for retaliation if your boss is an "equal opportunity bully." I learned this the hard way. Retaliation is only illegal if the original bullying was illegal. Here again, refer to the resources in step #2 below. But if you are being bullied for a class status protected by law, you must report it to HR to show a good faith effort to follow the procedures outlined by your company. I know retaliation is a valid fear. However, if you really are being bullied due to your class status, you are protected from retaliation by law. But if HR has no record of you reporting the toxic boss in the first place, your battle is much harder.
Speak up. Get help. This is critical. Most likely you are either already looking for another job or you're "waiting it out," hoping that your toxic leader will move on. It's true that most toxic leaders don't stay in one place for very long because they're too busy promoting their own career and pulling the wool over people's eyes. So, they have to keep job hopping before their superiors learn the truth about them. This is how their outward charisma and intelligence consistently fools "the powers that be." However, if YOU don't speak up, you're contributing to the problem. If they're bullying you, they are bullying and/or will bully others. Refer to the two sites I mentioned above (Anonymous Employee and Workplace Bullying Institute or similar) if you want to remain anonymous and take action. If you're on your way out the door, report the behavior to your boss's boss and HR, or another leader whom you trust. Don't count on HR following up with you to perform an exit interview to seek out your opinion. You owe it to your peers, who are also suffering, to try to contribute to the solution.
"Currently, bullying is legal in the workplace. You don't have a legal case for bullying or retaliation if your boss is an equal opportunity bully." -- Me, The DIY Leader
Yes, this was a very long article so I appreciate it if you've made it this far. There is so much information available at our fingertips that I'm barely able to scratch the surface in this blog.
I plan on adding some of these resources to my site at www.leadershipreno.com. Until then, just know that there is help out there. It's a small community for a global problem, so please make an effort to get involved in any way you possibly can to help push for #LeadershipReform.