Confronting Toxic Leadership
The movie released in January this year shows the power of an individual standing up against a man leading a toxic organisation. Roger Ailes is eventually kicked out of Fox News but the costs are shocking; employees have towed the line and become institutionalised, and those who speak out put their job and career at risk.
How brave are you to speak up? I spoke to an HR Manager who saw it as her duty to stand up to directors at her company with an outcome she wasn’t expecting. The culture was toxic. She refused to stay silent and instead, raised issues regarding leadership behaviour and the negative impact it was having on the working environment and employee wellbeing. She was fed up of leadership ignoring ethical values in favour of ease and expediency.
And then she was fired.
I chatted to her about what she learned, how she feels now and whether she would have the courage to do the right thing again.
What do you think are the common mistakes across many companies?
I firmly believe that companies should recruit for passion and train for skill.
Managers don’t consider the ripple effect of getting rid of people and the distrust this creates in the organisation. Yes, it might feel like they save money in the short term by making quick decisions but the reality is haemorrhaging and it affects engagement and retention. By not following due process, they are also leaving themselves open to claims of unfair dismissal, which will cost them more in the long run.
Leaders can adopt behaviour that borders on bullying, but it isn’t usually intentional. They just lack empathy and the self-awareness required to recognise what they are doing.
Emotional Intelligence is such a crucial part of leadership. Much neuroscience evidence now shows that this is more important than IQ. We need to take people back to the basics to understand the importance of self-awareness and empathy.
Many managers make decisions based on their personal bias and opinion, in a way that feels detached from the workforce. Instead, they need to apply logic and objectivity to their decision-making processes, even if they might not like it personally. I became the link between the different levels of the company to aid this communication.
What value do ‘brave’ HR individuals add to business?
They do what’s right in the workplace, balancing the needs of the business and the people. They can be the company’s greatest asset as they can make a big difference to employees’ well-being. But it depends who is considering this question. The person I reported to and who represented HR at senior management level was the Finance Director and saw “what’s right for the business” as being “what’s right for the bottom line”. She did not appreciate that if you take care of those in your charge, the bottom line will take care of itself.
That is so short sighted. How do you overcome that?
We need to learn from other companies where they get it right for their people and look at the difference that makes to the financial position.
We also need to gather feedback from employees about how they feel and share that with the leadership team. This can be powerful if it is done well, identifying strengths as well as weaknesses, and putting it into the context of areas for development (without judgement or criticism). We need to consider ‘weaknesses’ as our blind spots and we should encourage people to say “thank you for making me aware.”
That’s got to be challenging when leaders disagree with or simply don’t like feedback?
The leadership team might not see these issues flagged up in feedback as priorities. But if they focus on the perceived weaknesses as key areas for development and use the perceived strengths to inform the way forward, it will help employees to thrive and achieve their full potential. We need to think collectively about how to help people practically.
And that’s not just about helping employees feel better but also about helping leaders and managers know how to fulfil their role well, which isn’t innate knowledge.
Managers might perceive the idea of taking time to consider peoples’ well-being as unnecessary as they’re too focused on the need to deliver. They need to lead the way for others by demonstrating behaviours that are empathetic as well as decisive. However, the drive for profit can mean we end up putting sticking plasters on problems and developing convoluted systems and processes that create stress. We need time to think outside the box to really make improvements.
So, take stress and the misconception that it is an individual weakness. Everyone at any level can experience stress and it says more about their environment than them personally.
Give me an example.
A manager believed an employee had an attitude problem. I asked what conversations they’d had, what was understood to be the root cause of the problem, and what support was being provided. However, the manager had ‘been here before’ and so considered any time spent to address this to be a waste of time. It was a strategic decision. As HR Manager, I suggested some ways to help the individual but the Finance Director had the view that people are like bananas, when one is mouldy, they have to be removed from the bunch to prevent others being affected. There was no logic and no empathy.
So, do you think there are key characteristics of a toxic culture?
Yes. One or two toxic leaders who use unethical means to manipulate those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase special status for themselves or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and wrongdoings.
You cannot bully people into submission. However, toxic leaders lack the self-awareness to understand that people’s emotional response to their aggressive management style detracts from their positive attributes, such as their ability to lead and engage people.
What about progression in the company?
I’ve always supported employees with their career development, identifying their aspirations and getting them into the best place ready for the next opportunity. But this didn’t sit comfortably with management who questioned my practice, believing that by committing to interview all internal applicants, I was inflating expectations. Management based decisions about what people could do on their performance in their current role and not potential. If someone ticks all the boxes when they are recruited, they have nowhere to go and get bored quickly, which impacts on their satisfaction and achievement.
I sense a blame culture
I ask a lot of questions about systems, processes, people, and the tools needed to be successful. Part of this is about identifying and owning mistakes and seeing them as learning opportunities. I want managers to be able to accept ‘mistakes’ and share when they make choices that don’t work out. This is paramount in an industry dealing with innovation and technology where employees need time to experiment. Pioneers need an opportunity to explore the unknown, unconsciously solving problems and making new discoveries. Managers can inhibit this development when they focus too much on delivery targets.
Instead of thinking ‘this doesn’t work’ we need to reframe it as ‘how do we make it work?’ One organisation I worked at had a pool table in the office and employees used this when they had difficult problems to solve. Because it helped them to relax and removed pressure, it helped them to think creatively. Managers shouldn’t worry that giving people an inch, they’ll take a mile. In reality, give people an inch and they give back a mile.
I love that last statement. And it’s so true. It reminds me of a company set up in Oxford last year that had an employee-centred approach to work around hours, holiday and so on, and it has grown so quickly and won numerous awards already!
So how do you think about leadership as a decision-making authority?
I think it’s important that they demonstrate how they make decisions, based on data. Just saying ‘it’s my idea’ isn’t good enough to motivate employees. Strength of leadership doesn’t come from telling people to accept decisions they’ve made, particularly when they’re not backed-up. That feels aggressive. Decision-making should also be informed by employees. But when people are put under pressure, they can’t clarify their thoughts and articulate them upwards. I’ve been in meetings where I’ve had ideas to share but felt under pressure and so struggled to communicate them clearly. I’ve then looked incompetent, which affected my self-esteem and confidence.
What’s the biggest challenge for HR?
When we’re in that toxic environment and subject to the stress, it’s really hard to stay detached and not to be affected.
We need to recognise when people are under pressure and support them; to show empathy, respect and recognise that it is not about weakness. If employees are continually told they’re ‘rubbish’, they will come to believe it. As HR professionals, we need to be mindful of that for ourselves and try to remain objective. That’s a tall order.
As the messenger, it is true we may get shot but ask yourself the question: where it is you want to work? And when people are willing to stand up for what is right and vote with their feet, these toxic companies will inevitably struggle to perform.
What’s your advice for managers?
Managers need to role-model. They need to show it’s ok to make mistakes and to be vulnerable. To be innovative we need a culture that is not risk-adverse. I love the philosophy “If you want to go fast go alone and if you want to go far go together”. All processes need to reflect meeting human needs.
Gather information from your employees about how they really feel. There are so many variables that impact on their ability to deliver. Share this data, develop an action plan that has buy-in from everyone and develop a company where everyone wants to be. Leaders need to think of themselves as coaches rather than autocratic managers. And they need to recognise that they can’t predict everything except that something is bound to go wrong. It’s about providing agile responses; they don’t need to have all the answers but need to know what questions to ask.
Do you have any regrets?
No. Despite being unemployed, I’m proud of how I stood up for what was right and hope I inspire other HR professionals to do the same. We need to move away from transactional HR and get better at focusing on people and challenging the organisation. We are the moral compass. The rewards are phenomenal in creating the right working culture and witnessing the positive impact that has.
To discuss your reaction to this article, similar challenges you’ve experienced or to explore how to find your ‘brave’ and develop the HR role, get in touch.