Feb 18, 2014
Feb 4, 2014
“A toxic leader is a person who has responsibility over a group of people or an organization, and who abuses the leader–follower relationship by leaving the group or organization in a worse-off condition than when s/he first found them.“ (Source: Wikipedia)
A recent NPR segment focused on the topic of toxic leadership in the US army. The story described research done by David Matsuda, an anthropology professor who tried to understand the high rate of suicide among US soldiers while he was researching local cultures. There were several interesting aspects to this story:
- The military is an organization where an extreme hierarchical structure and the uncompromising result-oriented goals (to be achieved at any price) may result in life & death consequences. We can think of it as an extreme indicator of behaviors in other organizations that are not as strict, in which toxic leadership might be harder to spot.
- The complete effect of toxic leaders on their subordinates and teams is not always fully recognized. It is not always as high profile as suicide, but a continuous degradation in individual and team performance. As mentioned in the story by a lieutenant general at the joint forces - wherever there were toxic leaders, no one would take prudent risk, be innovative, or act creatively.
- The fact that it took an outsider (an anthropology professor, not a soldier) to ask the right questions that would get to the root-cause and reveal a large scale phenomena, one in which toxic commanders abused soldiers who ended up committing suicide
As suggested in the piece, toxic leadership exists in other organizations as well: “The problem of toxic leadership is not confined to the military. It will be a cancer in any social organization that lacks the mechanisms for controlling it.“
In most cases of toxic leadership found in civilian and corporate organizations, it “only” causes people to be miserable, abused, or to simply leave their job and find a new company to work for. Toxic leadership may be challenging to trace or distinguish from other issues, but has a tremendous effect on how teams and whole companies operate, as well as how challenges are faced and goals achieved. It can lead to undesired attrition of good people while the bad apples remain in place and continue spoiling the bunch.
Why is it so tricky to identify toxic leaders?
Today’s fast paced challenges call for super-performance. As a result, people tend to focus on the results and deliverables, and not pay enough attention to the method or the way things get done. Additionally, in the corporate world, the effects of a toxic leader are harder to detect, and symptoms might be attributed to other issues or go unnoticed. Companies should invest in establishing processes that first identify, and then keep toxic leaders at bay.
- Assessments: One of the solutions to identify toxic leaders in the army was to add subordinate evaluations when deciding whether to promote a commander or not. Toxic leaders can behave in a certain way to their commanders and in a different way to their subordinates. In order to assess behavior in a complete manner, the organization should consider all aspects of the work the person is doing as well the feedback of the people who manage, report to, and interact with the individual. This is already a part of many if not most companies’ assessment processes (usually called 360-degree assessments). If your organization is still not not doing this, here’s another reason to start.
- Another issue that could lead to toxic leaders going undetected arises when top-leadership that is disconnected from the day-to-day operations. Wise senior leaders understand the importance of staying connected to the people who work at their organizations, and not just to their direct reports. They make an effort to “show their face” around the company, and create opportunities for any employee to interact with them. Employees would hopefully get the message that they can access top leaders whenever is needed.
- Finally, not all organization pay attention to creating and promoting a culture with open communication channels all around. Companies need to nurture a culture where any member is able, even expected, to express their opinions and raise concerns across multiple forums and channels. These can include traditional approaches like town-halls, surveys, or discussion forums.
It is important to keep the concept of toxic leadership in mind as we set out to observe and analyze an organization and the social dynamics within it. Thankfully, many of the activities that are important for recognizing the presence of toxic leaders are also good practices in the organization for other reasons as well.
Jan 22, 2014
When organizations make a decision to reorganize or restructure the way they work, it usually starts with strategic organizational goals: Improving flow of information, adapting to a changing marketplace, change in organizational priorities, and so on. Most of the thinking tends to be around organizational units of like teams or departments, and how they connect and relate to one another.
When it comes to the individuals - Organizations tend to put a lot of attention on the top leadership and management level. However, a lot of the energy related to most other employees is directed toward more bureaucratic and mundane tasks like headcount calculations, or who would report to whom in which team. In many cases, companies neglect to invest enough energy (if at all) in the thing that makes everything tick - THE PEOPLE.
M. C. Escher, Sky & Water I, woodcut, 1938
Ideally, the organization should make the effort to engage every single one of its members, and involve them before, during, and after the process. At the minimum - get their thoughts and feedback at the end of the process so you know where they stand. However, there are not always sufficient resources or time for this. In this these cases, it is important to prioritize who to talk to, and when. Even when you do have resources to involve everyone, the order of engaging the organization's members might matter. Specifically, there are two tiers that leadership and change-drivers should consider and address:
1) The future leaders
Leadership has usually already identified those individuals who would assume key roles in the future, at both team and organizational levels. Companies usually spend significant resources to find and nurture its future leaders for the near term as well as for medium and longer terms. Organizations make efforts to ensure sure these people are happy and will remain in the company. In times of organizational changes, the importance of communicating the process and status to the future leaders might sometime be overlooked due to the chaos of change.
Such periods of organizational change could be confusing times for everyone, and key people might not feel secure enough. They might start looking for alternative roles that seem more stable. It is critical to keep lines of communication open and give sufficient attention to those individuals. Especially in times of organizational challenge and instability, companies need to address the tier of future leadership. Make sure they understand what is going on, and why. What the goals of the specific change are. The drivers of change and organizational leaders would be wise to reassure the future leaders. It is good to listen to their thoughts and goals. It is especially important listen and respond to their concerns, before they turn into fears.
2) The social hubs
Every network of people is characterized by a few central people, not necessarily in terms of their role but in the sense of the way that they are perceived by others. These are the people who are well connected with others within the organization. They are the ones that everyone goes to for advice, or to chat with when there's gossip, because they always know first when things are happening. Office admins could be an example for people who are well networked across the organization, and know what's happening above as well as underneath the surface.
These central people are crucial in situations of change, as they basically control the tone of information that flows informally within the organization. It could be wise to identify those social hubs, and popular/vocal members of the organization, and bring those central people on board. It could even be as simple as communicating the current process and the rationale behind it to them. Making them involved partners could help spread the right message across the organization. Even when the plan is to talk with every employee in person, this process takes time. Starting with those central employees could help spread the positive change throughout the organization until the individual conversations are complete.
Planning the communication messaging as well as the order in which to communicate organizational changes is an important component of the change management strategy. This grows in importance for larger organizations or more radical changes. It is especially important for change processes that cannot be accomplished swiftly but stretch over a period of time - like the merging of business units or acquisition related integrations.
Formal channels and hierarchies of communications are not enough - we also have to consider the informal and interpersonal channels of communication that might affect the organization just as much as the formal channels, if not more. Successful implementation of the internal communication strategy can help mitigate risks, reduce fears and resistance, and increase confidence in the organization and its leaders.