What’s Your Trace of Toxicity?

Last week I met with two of my favorite Haas Business School young alumnae. They both work for a large company whose name I will not reveal. The company is again on the most recent list of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” with a blurb that would make you say, “Wow, I’d like to work at that place!” But my conversations with these two young women reminded me of this blast of truth from Buckingham and Coffman’s First Break All the Rules: 

[Y]our immediate manager is more important [than “great workplace” practices].  She defines and pervades your work environment… It is better to work for a great manager in an old fashioned company, than for a terrible manager in a company offering an enlightened employee-focused culture.  In short, managers are the lynch-pin to employee satisfaction and productivity. [emphasis added]

“Defines and pervades your work environment.” Isn’t that what the intrusive power of a toxic boss is like? Actually, as strong as that language is, they might have been better to say, “pervades your life.”  One of the two mentees confessed to me that her boss is affecting her health and that her family notices her misery at home.  She gave me flashbacks to the eight or so hellish years my dad for worked for PJ Stone (name changed) at Ford back in the 70s.  Dad detested what he saw as inauthenticity and arrogance (the use of initials instead of a first name, he told us, was a pretty good sign of a phony, mimicking the high level execs).  This boss was a master at making people miserable.  PJ Stone was the ghost at our dinner table.  I honestly believe he helped shorten my dad’s life.

Allow me to briefly dissect the two alums’ experiences, because they are instructive for me, and perhaps you.  One is almost literally imprisoned in a conference room, having to ask permission to go to lunch or for coffee, and required to stay until 7:00 even when the work is done.  This is a woman who for two years did a better job of grading papers for me than I did. If ever there were a person who did NOT need micromanaging, it was her.  The other alumna has the opposite problem – a boss who explains little, ignores requests for direction, and fails to do what he says he will do.  These two bosses are toxic to a fault and leave me wondering, how in the world can such a reputable organization have such disreputable managers?!

PJ and these two managers seep toxins into their environments.  But none of us are free of toxic leakage. And each of us is responsible to know what our poison is likely to be.  Do you know yours?  These three bosses offer two extreme examples of toxicity, but they are merely poles on a “spectrum” of natural human dysfunction.  At one end of the pole, total micromanagement; extreme fear of failure; inability to allow mistakes; fear of trusting anyone to do it right.  And at the other end, an unwillingness or inability to engage; maybe it’s fear of pushing people, or feeling like an imposter, or thinking every employee should learn everything on their own.  I know I fall to this side of the spectrum, flying at 10,000 feet and not giving sufficient direction, especially to help new people.

What’s your poison?  If you don’t think you have one, then you really have one.  If you’re not sure, ask. Your employees know.

Awareness is always step one!  Strive to know the ways in which you may be unintentionally releasing toxins, so that you can

Lead with your best self.

  • Toxic is a great word to describe this dynamic. We often underestimate the impact of our style, so this word alone makes you stop and take a longer look.

  • It is 4 pm on Monday and so far no comments on the Toxic post. Could it be that it is near to a taboo topic? How can an employee say, “My manager is toxic?” Can we say to the manager, you know by not letting me know if I am doing things right is toxic? Or any other question based on the items of toxicity listed above for the two example managers. Of course, the conversation need not include the word “toxic,” but somehow an employee must find a way to deal with the situation. In an excellent company to work for, it seems there ought to be a way to correct these situations. An employee ombudsman?

  • I am the CEO of a company with 15 locations and 1,600 employees. It is a manufacturing company serving 3 distinct industries; automotive, medical and wind energy. Most consider our company to be highly successful. I am only setting the background and not bragging. I see this situation as pervasive throughout our beautiful company. I must admit on my rise through the organization I saw (and still see) these toxic flaws not only in my personality, but in my management style.

    I can recall 3 occasions where my toxicity was killing a department or worse an individual that did not deserve my wrath. I was forced to realize my shortcomings and correct the situation. I made open apologies to the manager and their staff on two occasions. The third time I had a sit-down with a like individual that was as toxic as myself. We had created a war-like situation and the only people who it affected were our beautiful staff. What a horrendous situation and environment to work in – stuck between two warring toxic jack-asses. Once I was able to visually get it through my thick head that I was disrupting the company and most importantly our beautiful staff I had a private sit down with the other manager. By dis-arming and agreeing to ALWAYS communicate no matter the topic or how un-comfortable, we took our division to the top performing group in the company. We furthered the careers of many great people and created an environment that people from other division began to emulate. I could go on, but you get the picture. Toxic managers continue to exist within our beautiful company, but our environment does not allow them to last long…..

    As I reflect on Dan’s comments I am horrified with the thought that at sometime in my career I caused people pain beyond their work life; how unfair. I remember so many times that I was so utterly unfair with people and I affected their entire being and I am embarrassed. The only way that I can pay for those sins is to finally treat people with the respect that they deserve and earn. Instead of lashing out irrationally, I use that energy to lead, guide and ultimately promote.

    • David,
      I don’t know how I missed seeing this comment, but WOW! What an extraordinary awareness and turnaround. Thank you for so openly sharing your experience. To use your word, it is “beautiful.”
      A question and a query:
      Question: What caused the awareness on your part? How did you realize you were doing this?
      Query: I wonder if there is a relationship between your really tough stance towards yourself (“thick head,” “jack ass,” etc.) and the external toughness? As a Catholic I learned to “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” but the hardest sinner to love was sometimes myself. So I wonder whether “self compassion” has played any role in your leadership learning!
      I’d love to come by your place in Detroit again sometime; I think my only visit was about 20 years ago. Sure seems like you and the company have grown in numbers and in the quality of your culture.
      Congrats and thanks again for sharing!

      • Dan, sorry for the long time in answering. Since you asked questions that are important to the topic of leadership, I thought it most fair to respond on this forum as opposed to just you.

        To answer your first question: What caused the awareness on my part?
        This is actually a funny, but, poignant story. About 10 of the TEAM members were in an engineering review meeting. The other “toxic” manager was in the same meeting and we were faced with a difficult tooling issue; of course the two of us toxic managers had differing solutions to the problem. As the meeting progressed so did our testosterone. Everyone was subjected to our “toxicity”. As the hyperbole escalated along with the tempers and physical threats the TEAM was mystified as to what to do…… finally the Quality Manager finally had enough (keep in the back of your mind that this was an attractive female) and stood and SLAMMED her pile of notebooks onto the table. Everyone froze! Then she said, in a very stern voice, that she had enough of the immaturity and refused to be part of watching the division suffer because of unbridled testosterone flowing freely. Then she picked up her things and stomped off to her office. As Dr. Massey coined the phrase…. that was a “significant emotional event”……. I knew at that moment that my life would never be the same again….

        I was raised by a wonderful man. He was and still is a very strong Catholic. He came from another generation and did not ever change as the social mores and norms have evolved he is still the same. My belief was that if I am the boss then you will do as I command. Pathetic to say the least. However, this answers your next question. I was and am very tough on myself. I expect to win and do everything in my power to achieve success. The life changing difference is that now I KNOW that I need to empower my TEAM to make it happen. While it is okay to be tough on myself I cannot simply be tough on all member of my most valuable TEAMS! The toughness should not be demonstrated and perceived as “TOXICITY” but rather as LOVE. Instead of chastising mistakes, celebrate them and celebrate the individuals that are living through the chaos that the mistake created….. use the internal toughness to take the individual and/or TEAM under your protective wing and nurture them and teach them. This is what true Leaders do…

        WOW, the concept of self-compassion. Hmmm. Dan, you have piqued my interest on this. I am going to have to ponder this concept for a while as I simple have never considered it. This is exactly why I follow your teachings. You introduce new concepts that are fascination in the ever reaching want of become a better leader. Thank You!

        Please come visit the next time you are coming to Detroit. I would love to see you. Our headquarters is in Fenton, MI. Take Care.

  • Loved this article Dan and then also, the comment by Mark John Hunter that there were “no comments” yet, as he offered that maybe this was because the subject is so taboo? Recalling your own ending words, and the meaning I thought they conveyed – that not being able to think of oneself as ever being toxic is surely a sign one likely is – I thought to offer a way forward in considering one’s own toxicity by relying on Appreciative Inquiry-based questioning. First, one can consider, and even ask this of their direct reports, peers and those they report to alike, the following type of AI “flipped and elevated” questions:

    Instead of how am I toxic or what behaviors have I displayed that were hurtful or non-productive for you? Flip this instead by asking: When am I at my best in ______ (insert coaching, interacting, emailing, helping, etc. etc.) you? Can you give me some real and recent examples? Now elevate it: What specifically do I do to help you be at your best? Write the answers down if you want, taking notes, but being certain to listen, listen, and listen; ask deeper questions about each answer to really get at what strengths they see in you, as the manager / boss / supervisor / owner, etc., and how you use these strengths in your actual behaviors and actions. Then, you can explore openly with them, if you dare, the flip side of these strengths. Which actions or behaviors have I done that didn’t help you be your best? This takes courage and trust – which as a leader, is what you hopefully are wanting to model. However, if you are hesitant to get such direct feedback, you could review all the info you have gathered, summarize your strengths, and then identify for yourself some gaps you see are missing. Then approach your colleague again and review these with them for feedback. You may discover some of your own self-identified “toxic” behaviors are not that at all and others you thought were not so severe are preventing others, including yourself from –

    Leading with one’s best self.

    • Anna,
      I think these comments along with David Swallow’s below are excellent.
      I haven’t studied A.I. in a while, but so much of my work with clients, students and self focus on the importance of creating a culture of safety so that we can have hard conversations. Your process described so well above helps to create safety and even positivity. It strikes me that we think about how important it is to make the subordinate feel safe, but we also need to let ourselves — when we are receiving feedback — feel safe as well!

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