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Emotional Intelligence Solutions for Toxic Leadership

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Toxic Leadership

“Toxic leaders cast their spell broadly. Most of us claim we abhor them. Yet we frequently follow — or at least tolerate — them.” ~ Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders(Oxford University Press, 2004)

Much has been written about toxic leaders with psychopathic traits and narcissistic personality disorders. Bad leaders leave a trail of diminishing returns, ruined reputations, failed products, employee litigation and disheartened staffs.

But applying labels doesn’t solve any problems. Leadership is relationship-driven, and organizational toxicity involves all levels—from followers to executive boards. Chopping off the rotting head won’t do the trick when the entire organizational system has been infected.

Companies that replace one dysfunctional leader with another often run through a series of CEOs in an attempt to find the right savior. They’re effectively changing seats on the Titanic. Consultants and coaches may try to treat toxicity’s symptoms, but they’ll achieve lasting results only when they address its root causes.

Despite our best efforts at developing leadership skills, we continue to witness counterproductive and destructive workplace behaviors. Toxic leadership is a major contributor to employee disengagement.

In Search of Answers

“Toxicity is everybody’s business, just as ‘quality is everybody’s business’ in TQM.” ~ Alan Goldman, Transforming Toxic Leaders(Stanford University Press, 2009)

There’s no shortage of bestselling business books that pose the following questions:

·   How do we handle high achievers with difficult behaviors that push the limits?

·  Why do followers and executive boards tolerate and empower toxic leaders?

·  Why are HR experts, boards, managers and others so reluctant to respond to toxic behaviors?

·   Should we fire a dysfunctional CEO or hire a leadership coach who provides detoxification training?

The dark side of leadership emerges over time. Left unchecked, bad behavior invites turnover, absenteeism, grievances, bad press and costly lawsuits.

Can leadership coaches and consultants diagnose and “cure” these destructive leaders?

It’s not easy. Most toxic leadership behaviors are embedded in dysfunctional systems that actually promote destructiveness through poor policies, avoidance and negligence.

Signs of Toxicity

Toxic leaders have been responsible for numerous horrific business failures in the last few decades: Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco International and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom. While many organizations have toxic leaders, they may manage to survive for years before problems get out of hand.

There is no precise definition of toxic behavior. Most people recognize it as displays of arrogance, selfishness, manipulation, bullying, callousness and control. Toxic bosses may be smooth and polished with people they need, but disrespectful and harsh with subordinates.

Many toxic bosses achieve spectacular results and wind up in the limelight, so their transgressions are forgiven or tolerated. They use their ability to manipulate people to further their own careers, no matter the cost to the organization or its people.

In the short term, they act like heroes and create loyal followers who produce great results. In the long term, they create enemies, bend rules, and push the limits of ethics and relationships.

When business results are positive, toxic behaviors may go unchecked. But when the bottom line takes a dip, CEOs lose their patience — but it’s often much more difficult to make corrections at that point.

Resisting External Help

Coaches and consultants know firsthand that corporate toxicity rarely has a single cause, leader or culprit. Attempts to single out destructive leaders won’t fix all problems. Multiple levels of the organization should be scrutinized.

CEOs must be willing to take a participatory approach to healing at all levels. Otherwise, they risk hiring and promoting more toxic leaders in the future. Unfortunately, companies often call in external experts only after reluctantly acknowledging the scope of their problems.

Even when they do ask for help, many CEOS have already chosen a culprit, and they try to dictate their agenda to the outside consultant. When entrenched in defensive and protective behaviors, leaders often resist attempts to change established patterns of negative organizational behavior.

Experienced coaches and consultants anticipate and push through this resistance. They are usually adept at evaluating toxic dynamics and preparing an honest, accurate evaluation.

Even the most highly productive leaders have some toxic qualities that contribute to their success. The earlier an organization retains external experts, the easier it will be to resolve unhealthy dynamics.

Transformation Opportunities

Perhaps what’s needed is a counterintuitive approach. Instead of dwelling on toxic behaviors’ destructive impact, consultants and coaches can work with leaders to identify opportunities inherent in their deficits.

Is this unrealistic? One expert doesn’t think so.

Instead of viewing toxic leaders as villains and liabilities, think of them as potential assets, innovators and rebels, urges management professor Alan Goldman in Transforming Toxic Leaders.

Working on the premise that “toxicity is a fact of company life,” Goldman suggests there are advantages to be gained from skillful anticipation, control, and handling of troubled and difficult leaders.

Dysfunctional organizations will ignore toxicity and its impact. Conversely, successful companies come up with resourceful, innovative strategies for turning seeming deficits into developmental opportunities.

Toxicity Prevention Plan

Goldman offers 10 steps to preparing for toxicity’s impact on the workplace:

1. Take a proactive, preventive approach to detecting and handling dysfunctional behaviors. Articulate strategies for identifying problems throughout the company.

2. Find innovative ways to solve identified toxicity problems.

3.  Engage external consultants and coaches as helping partners, when necessary.

4.  Provide leadership and employees with emotional-intelligence training, which will improve relationships and toxin detection/management skills.

5. Provide negotiation and conflict-resolution training for management and HR leaders.

6.  Develop organizational protocols for preventing, assessing and treating toxic behaviors. (Hiring an outside management consultant may be warranted.)

7. Designate managers or HR leaders to function as toxin detectors and handlers. Companywide training in toxicity and counterproductive behavior is appropriate.

8.  Review your organization’s and leaders’ orientation toward workplace problems. How do you handle personnel and relationship conflicts? Toxin detection?

9.  Review your current grievance, mediation, arbitration and/or ombudsperson policies to determine compatibility with, and support of, other toxin-related initiatives.

10.  Use 360-degree feedback for early detection of interpersonal problems and dysfunctional behaviors.

Readiness for Change

Trauma often opens doors. Sometimes a situation has to deteriorate before people shout “Enough!” By the time HR, the executive board, the senior team and employees start using the “toxic” label, conflicts likely abound.

If top leaders or managers disagree about solutions, organizations may postpone making important decisions and allow toxic behavior to continue. When the people at the top engage in power struggles, the consequences reverberate throughout the company: profit dips, layoffs, increased absenteeism and turnover, poor performance and abysmal customer service.

But fear and urgency are often good motivators, prompting leaders to face facts and do something. As Goldman notes, “Any transformation begins with a change in thinking and vocabulary.”

When coaches or consultants interview personnel about what’s wrong, they’ll listen for roadblocks and obstacles to readiness. They want to determine:

·  Where are the openings for change?

·  In which areas can there be a shift from negative to positive?

·  In spite of everything that’s wrong, where are the successes?

The coach or consultant will identify potential areas for success, shifting everyone’s language and thinking from deficits to opportunities.

Toxicity Correction Plan

Is it ever too late for a prevention plan? Is transformation truly possible in the face of pervasive toxicity?

Many case studies have proved that change is possible, but it requires a major shift in assumptions and engagement in coaching/training.

Start with the following steps for lowering your organization’s toxicity levels:

1. People must believe that change is possible and a realistic goal.

2. Everyone must accept personal accountability andabandon the use of labels and finger-pointing. Employees at all levels should identify their role in a given problem and find ways to help instead of hinder.

3. Everyone must agree to limit the use of negative language and focus instead on the organization’s overarching vision and goals. Consider training in positive leadership and the language of appreciation.

4. Key parties must attend coaching sessions to improve their interpersonal relationships, to process and eliminate toxic stories. Coaches can help them identify their strengths and develop coping skills that address their deficits.

5. Make training in emotional and social intelligence available throughout the organization.

6. Prioritize social and emotional intelligence in frequent performance reviews.

7. Consider recognizing small wins in project management to encourage appreciative communication.

8. Hire or designate toxin detectors and handlers who are trained in early detection of dysfunctional behaviors. Establish a program for early intervention.

9. Senior teams and executive boards should be charged with finding innovative solutions to their personal leadership deficits (i.e., appointing dual leaders for some positions, implementing collaborative leadership policies).

10.  Leaders should be encouraged to identify an expanded vision for the future—one that inspires people to work collaboratively.

While these correctional steps may seem idealistic, they’re not unrealistic. Of course, they require time and willingness. Recognizing toxicity as an opportunity for transformational change in organizations can be a turning point.

You can develop the qualities of positive leadership by working with a professional coach.The investment is well worth the reward: your ability to influence the future, your career and your personal-development capabilities.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders put positive leadership into action?Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to be more tap into the intrinsic motivation of followers? Positive leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a positive leader who inspires individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders develop more positive teams.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders nurture mindful conversations in the workplace. You can become an inspiring leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping Innovative Companies and Law Firms Assess, Select, Coach, Engage and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Executive Coaching; Leadership Development; Performance-Based Interviewing; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; Culture Change; Career Coaching and Leadership Retreats

...About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman

Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach|
Trusted Advisor to Executive Leadership Teams
Mindfulness & Emotional Intelligence Workplace Expert

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies select and develop emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

“Maynard Brusman is one of the foremost coaches in the United States. He utilizes a wide variety of assessments in his work with senior executives and upper level managers, and is adept at helping his clients both develop higher levels of emotional intelligence and achieve breakthrough business results. As a senior leader in the executive coaching field, Dr. Brusman brings an exceptional level of wisdom, energy, and creativity to his work.” — Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., President, College of Executive Coaching

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