By Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick
Early in the development of our business books we experienced a surge of interest in our leadership training offerings. Our speaking and workshop business tripled in just one year. But with the growth came challenges. We debated how to structure ourselves and where to focus people and budget.
To allow us to focus the majority of our time with clients and writing books, we brought in a senior leader and turned the business side of our enterprise completely over to him. We assumed that meant standardized billing, finding more resources, and reminding us of our P&L once a month. The executive had other ideas. Within weeks of coming in, with little idea about our business, and having spoken to no one on the team, he saw the indecisiveness inherent in the growing operation and became a dictator by default. He began making big decisions: announcing for instance that he would bring in new managers over our loyal people and remove team members who had worked for us for years. At the breakfast meeting where he informed us of his plan and nixed any further discussion, one of us remembers wondering what prison sentence we would have to serve if we stuck the sharp end of a fork in the man’s eye.
Before he arrived we’d had a fluid, dynamic team that used constant collaboration to solve problems and deliver work. Roles had evolved as needed, not under a hierarchical command-and-control structure, but under a team model where we all felt equal responsibility for success or failure. Ironically it was through the interaction with this manager that we learned the incredible value of what we had just lost. What followed was a very difficult year spent trying to reach a level of cooperation. Eventually we parted ways with the leader and achieved autonomy again, having learned our lesson the hard way: There are toxic leaders among us.
A recent study by Accenture shows the most commonly cited reasons people leave a job:
Whether you are considering making a move to work for a new boss, or you are trying to figure out the person you work for now, what follows is a short list of traits we’ve found toxic managers exhibit. Work for these people at your peril:
You Have to Fight For Access: Most problems with toxic bosses seemed to arise from a lack of communication. Our friend Tom McDonald is one of the most talented graphic designers we know (his name has been changed to protect him from his toxic boss): “When I realized a direct supervisor I had considered it a rare privilege for others to be allowed access to his office for approvals—and he expected me (and others) to fight for that access—I knew it would result in serious inefficiencies.” Tom added that his department was located a whopping 11 floors away from his boss’s office! And yet he rarely received replies to his emailed questions either. “I’d say a reply rate of 30 percent or less to serious and direct emailed business questions rates a toxic label,” he said. “One might be tempted to believe that the intent was to foster a sense of independent decision-making, but this supervisor was very hands-on. So the net result was a deadening inertia that enveloped all projects.”
They Don’t Need No Stinking Goals: Another sign of a toxic boss is confusion about goals. For instance, if at the end of meetings led by your supervisor no one is clear about "next steps," it may be due to the intentionally vague and obfuscatory language used. Too many buzzwords and conflicting goals means that your "toxic" boss may not want anyone to take any action without consulting with him/her.
You Are Ostracized by Association: “One of the first things I noticed working for that boss was that no one in other departments wanted to work with my supervisor or us,” Tom said. “We were actively avoided, and that was probably due to the fact that our office was run according to the paranoid rule of ‘Do Unto Them Before They Do It to You’—treating all potential partners as adversaries.”
They are Never Wrong: Toxic leaders refuse to admit they ever make mistakes. In fact, if you can’t remember the last time your boss admitted he or she was wrong, or even asked for the team’s advice when they were stuck, your boss may be toxic. But there’s a twist to this point: Another trait of never-wrong bosses is they typically only see others through their own lenses. We once worked with a senior leader who was a decent person, but he had a hang up. He believed sales people who were commission-driven were greedy, and workers who asked for raises were self-centered and narcissistic. Anyone who brought up money in his office found themselves with a black mark on their record. This leader was idealistic and purpose-driven, believing all workers were there for the good of the company and the customer. Certainly a noble goal! But he failed to acknowledge that some people are more reward-driven. They can’t help it; it’s in their natures. Great leaders accept their people have different motivators and find ways to tap into them to achieve big things.
They Have Favorites. Everyone has someone on the team they mesh better with, personality wise, even bosses. And that’s understandable. But toxic bosses push favoritism past the point of fairness—giving out plum assignments, promotions and undue attention, and typically to a sycophantic employee no one else seems to like.
The Cost? Gallup estimates that active disengagement from a toxic boss costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year. That’s a lot of lost production and frustrated talent!
We could go on: Toxic bosses over promise, they aren’t trustworthy, they take credit for your work, and so on. But we’ll leave the list at 5 for now because we’d love to hear from you. How do you know you’re working for a Toxic Boss?
Chester Elton's latest book, written with co-author Adrian Gostick, is What Motivates Me,aimed at helping readers align the work they do every day, for the rest of their lives, with what truly motivates them.
Elton and Gostick are also the New York Times bestselling authors of The Carrot Principle and All In.
Comment by Suzie Doscher: Too many times have I witnessed and heard about meetings that are about scheduling the next meeting rather than knowing exactly what comes next. I like the paragraph in this article: "Another sign of a toxic boss is confusion about goals. For instance, if at the end of meetings led by your supervisor no one is clear about "next steps," it may be due to the intentionally vague and obfuscatory language used. Too many buzzwords and conflicting goals means that your "toxic" boss may not want anyone to take any action without consulting with him/her."
A Practical Handbook