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What Is A Toxic Manager?

toxic manager

Most managers are uncomfortable with a simple truism that the current condition of any organization is direct reflection of leadership.  In other words, managers are accountable for the current success or failure of the team.  This epiphany is a rude awakening for some and a sad reality for others.  The challenge faced by most aspiring leaders is the brutal accountability that accompanies autonomy.  In other words, team performance is directly related to “who” is on the team and “how” they are managed.  The wrong people certainly influence performance and this quantification of talent is the primary measure of success and failure.  However, the most neglected performance indicator is the environment created by the manager for the team.  A toxic environment created by a poor manager can have a dramatic impact on organizational performance.  The healthiest of plants cannot thrive in a low quality soil.  Toxic managers poison the environment and limit the success of talented individuals on any team.

Can we actually poison the productivity of those we are given the opportunity to manage?  How much influence does the manager have on team performance?  Most people do not realize that sales, productivity, morale, safety, quality or any other measure of team performance are directly impacted by the environment within the organization.  Moreover, it is very difficult for any aspiring leader to admit they are the cause of the problems facing the team.  It is difficult for a subordinate to tell the boss that they are the problem.  If the environment becomes toxic to employees, those with the power to provide a remedy are in denial that “they” are the cause and no one is willing to let them know.  This condition can remain and even worsen greatly over time.  Tragically, the entire team can become institutionalized to accept the toxic environment as normal. 

What are toxins in the workplace that seem to have the most impact on the typical organization?  What can a good leader do to neutralize the toxin in the workplace?  As you might expect, some cures are very simple while others can be complex.  Toxicity requires removal of certain individuals while in other cases, it requires treatment.  Removing an individual has been overly complicated by our litigious society and the reluctance of many human resources functions to step up when it comes to talent management.  We are often paralyzed by the fear of litigation to the point that we settle for a horrible environment that is toxic for everyone on the team.  Too many executives either do not understand that risk is commensurate with return or they are afraid to make the tough decision.  This inaction will eventually erode whatever leadership equity the executive had to the point that he or she is no longer leading the organization.  Every single day we tolerate a toxic individual at any level results in an organization that no longer believes performance and attitude are valued.  The rule of thumb to remember is “if you think you need to make a people change…you probably do”.

Treatment for toxicity is a bit more complicated as it required a process rather than an event.  Focused coaching and training can help a toxic manager that may be managing without the capability (skills and talent).  Keep in mind that training is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  Generic management training can be too superficial to produce any real change for a smart, yet struggling manager.  These managers have read the books and been to the seminars and still do not realize that “they” are the toxin.  With proper preparation, a skilled business coach can break through the surface crust and begin the process of ongoing enlightenment.  Just remember that change is a process and individuals may or may not adopt the change at the same speed.  For some it may require months and for others it could be longer.

The toxic manager may also be aware of their toxicity, yet they believe their past achievement and reputation are a justification for the methods they employ.  This denial is very common for experienced managers that have never been confronted about leadership over management.  In other words, a marginally successful manager may be an incompetent leader. Settling for mediocrity is more common than we like to admit.  Organizations fear factors that eventually paralyze them to remove a toxic manager.  Market availability of talent, location, salary and other factors result in organizations settling for the “devil they know” rather than the one they might hire.

According to Gallup there are twelve questions to determine toxicity in an organization.  These questions may seem very simple, yet getting to a compelling answer is very complex. 

  1. First, do employees really know what is expected from them?  This is much more complicated than a simple or generic job description. 
  2. Do employees have what they need to perform their job correctly?  This is far more significant than the basic tools and includes training and development. 
  3. Do employees have an opportunity to do what they do best?  If you have not determined employee strengths, they may be in the wrong position on your team.
  4. Are all employees cared about as individuals?  In other words do they feel valued as a person rather than an employee?
  5. Do employees receive recognition and praise constantly?  Weekly notice and praise is necessary to fuel the motivation tanks on the team.
  6. Does the organization encourage individual development?  Training must be considered the path to strategic excellence rather than another cost burden for the organization.
  7. Do individual employee opinions matter?  Sadly, many organizations ask for feedback but don’t listen to what they hear or provide a response.
  8. Is individual contribution linked to the organizational mission?  We cannot assume each employee knows how important their role is for success.
  9. Are employees encouraged to form friendships at work?  We do not care what you know until we know you care.
  10. Do employees get feedback about specific job performance regularly?  Once a year is not enough.
  11. Are all jobs growing in order to allow learning and development?  Employees must constantly be developed to understand the smallest of details behind their jobs.
  12. Is excellence rewarded or do we settle for mediocrity?  Employees will usually hit the target we give them and if it is low, that is exactly what they will reach.

Consider these questions and your organization.   An honest answer most often reveals work that is necessary for leaders on each team.  Constantly working toward positive answers is a process rather than a destination.  Being willing to move and exert effort requires leadership.  The organization can become institutionalized to the point that it sees current reality as acceptable.  Normalcy becomes tolerated and change is avoided.  Great leaders are constantly willing to “shake the snow globe” and understand that obsolescence in every process is necessary to get the toxins out of your organization.