Fireside Chat Ep 4: Why Toxic Leadership is Tolerated By Organizations & More W/ Lynn Harrison

Watch the interview here:

 

Stephan: 

Hi, my name is Stephan Weidner and I’m the CEO of numi.com. We are all about unleashing the collective potential of organizations, hopefully, your organization. I have a very special guest here with me today, Lynn Harrison, and what we’re going to be talking about is toxic leadership or abrasive leaders. 

Stephan: 

What I love is that Lynn brings a couple of specific things to the table. Number one, you’re a master certified coach. In other words, you’ve got the chops, you’ve done this work. She’s worked with many abrasive leaders. 

Stephan: 

And secondly, you stay abreast of the science and the evidence. In fact, that’s why I first reached out to you recently here, because you contributed to this book Innovations in Leadership Coaching and the chapter you wrote, that Lynn wrote, was specifically about abrasive leaders. 

Stephan: 

Lynn, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your willingness to participate with me here today. Thanks. Welcome. 

Lynn: 

Thank you. My pleasure. 

Stephan: 

Now let’s jump right into the idea of toxic leaders and their place within organizations. We’ve had a  number of organizations approach us and say, “We’ve got this leader, they’re causing disruptions, their  team is underperforming, individuals are feeling like they’re walking on eggshells.” Then we ask them,  “Well, how long has this been going on?” And sometimes the answer is, “Years,” sadly. 

Stephan: 

It’s easy to point the finger and say, “Okay, that person’s the problem. They’re the bad apple in the  barrel.” But come on. How can an organization allow that to happen for years and years and years?  That’s my first question for you, Lynn. 

Lynn: 

Yeah, that’s a great question. And that’s certainly been my experience. When I studied abrasive leaders,  I was curious about what causes this in the first place. Is it just a problem of a dysfunctional leader with this bad personality that never should have been put in a managerial role in the first place? Or is there something else going on around the leader that’s contributing to the situation? What I found, as you saw in the chapter I wrote called Perfect Storm, it is a confluence of both those factors, so partly about the personality, partly about what’s going on in the organizational system. 

Lynn:

The leaders I interviewed for my research, were first to admit that they were intense and driven and could get cranky and demanding and so on, that was part of their makeup. But that was exacerbated often in the environment that they found themselves in, so the system they were in had in some ways supportive that behaviour. Sometimes it was a case of just turning a blind eye to this dysfunctional leadership behaviour because most of these people deliver great results. They’re often technically brilliant and because they work hard and they’re very task-oriented, they make things happen and they often make their companies a lot of money. So organizations are fearful to let them go and think even if they bring this issue forward, that could result in this person leaving. Sometimes, not only is that dollars walking out the door, but also specialized competence that other organizations, their competitors would really like to have. That causes some concern for them. 

Lynn: 

Now what’s also interesting as well, these leaders cause all kinds of distress in their own work environment, among their coworkers, really disrupting the organization and causing a lot of fear and discomfort and so on. They’re often beloved by their clients. They really come through for clients and they are all about quality results, so the clients often don’t want them to go anywhere. Then of course, there are the senior leaders who are looking at the bottom line and what this person contributes in that respect. 

Lynn: 

Sometimes this goes on for years in part because they have protected the organization, they have a boss who makes excuses for them and doesn’t do anything about it. And people keep working around this leader and talk about this leader and what a problem they are, but nobody does anything because the boss is protecting this person because of their ability to deliver. 

Lynn: 

The other thing that can be interesting is sometimes an abrasive leader is hired by an abrasive leader, so they don’t see the problem. They just think a lot of people have thin skin and they shouldn’t be so concerned about this behaviour, just get on with your work. 

Lynn: 

Or the boss could be someone who’s conflict-avoidant, and doesn’t want to have the difficult conversation with this individual, has avoided it for all this time. And in fact, at some level, might that this leader’s willing to go out and deliver the tough messages to people that their boss doesn’t want to have to do. 

Stephan: 

Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Lynn: 

So there’s a whole bunch of different factors that can be going on in the background. 

Stephan: 

Yeah, there’s a number there. I just want to get a sort of a list. You mentioned the boss or the supervisor of that individual is conflict-avoidant or they’re also abrasive in their own nature. That’s a factor.

Stephan: 

The second is you mentioned that the organization is making a lot of money thanks to this individual and the customers are really happy. Happy customers and revenue, that’s probably going to exacerbate the problem. And what else? 

Lynn: 

Well, the thing I found in my research over and over again was that these managers were promoted into managerial roles because they were uber individual contributors, not because they know how to lead.  So the organization is choosing people who deliver good results, the person’s thinking, “Oh great, I make more money. I don’t really know what it means to manage people, but I’ll keep doing what I’ve been  doing that’s made me successful.” Only now they’re in a role where they have to get things done and feel through and with people and they don’t know-how. 

Lynn: 

So they haven’t necessarily been oriented to what it means to lead. They haven’t been trained to do that. They were great engineers, IT experts, lawyers, financial analysts. They maybe were trained in some other area and now all of a sudden they’re leading people without any understanding of how to do that. 

Lynn: 

The other thing I found is that these organizations were, as you’ve mentioned, really focused on goals, a  very task-oriented kind of culture. So even though they might say, “People are our most important  asset,” when push comes to shove, they’re more interested in the results and keeping their shareholders  happy than figuring out how that person actually delivered results and holding them accountable  around the “how.” So that’s another common thing I found in these organizations. 

Lynn: 

They are also typically in a very competitive environment, inside and out. The leaders vied with each other for influence or resources and the pecking order inside, but they were also often in a competitive industry where it was pretty much this idea of dog eat dog and only the strongest survive an aggressive cultural milieu. 

Lynn: 

The lack of honest and direct feedback was very typical. These people had gone along for years and often when I’d start to do coaching with them and they got their first 360, they were just devastated to find out how poorly people thought of them and that people actually feared them, maybe hated them,  avoided them in the hallway. They usually knew that they were pretty tough and that they could be pretty demanding of people, but they did not get the extent to which they actually caused that much distress. Those people went home at the end of the week wondering if they wanted to come back the next week or talking about their latest experience with this leader to their spouse all weekend. They really did not, for the most part, get that. 

Stephan: 

I think that’s an interesting point you make there Lynn because we’ve seen that with organizations where we ask them, “Hey, have you approached this individual? Do they know what the potential  consequences are here?” For the most part, we hear back a response, “Well, if they can’t see the signs, then they deserve to go,” kind of thing. In other words, no one’s giving them the feedback that, “Hey,  you’re causing disruption here. Did you realize that people are stressed out, avoiding you, et cetera?”  For those around that leader, I think it’s so obvious. For that leader, they’re blind to it. What’s up with that? How is it possible that a leader is so blind to the impact they’re having on the people around them?

Lynn: 

Yeah. It raises the complexity of the issue because, on the one hand, a lot of these leaders are not assessing their success based on their relationships with people. They’re so task-oriented, they’re  looking at, “Did we get the job done?” So it’s not really crossing their mind that in the process, they not only didn’t make friends, they lost a lot and they’re not even sure why that matters. I don’t think we can assume that every abrasive leader really wants to be liked and that’s a super important value to them.  Might be to me as a coach, but that’s not necessarily their value. 

Lynn: 

What’s been interesting to find with some of these leaders, what motivated them to change, it wasn’t this awareness that people didn’t them so much as their behaviour was interfering with the ability to get good results. It shut people down or distracted people from doing the job. People didn’t want to raise a  different point of view in front of them. So the quality of the thinking was affected and therefore the output. They didn’t actually shift their value system to being a person who wants to be warm and fuzzy,  but they became aware that they were causing way more disruption and distraction in the workplace than they realized. 

Stephan: 

And do they, in your experience, always equate that disruption with lower quality of work or is there some education that needs to go on there? 

Lynn: 

Well, I think there’s some education, but at some level, they know because often what they come in with  is, “I have to work harder than anybody else around here.” Or I go into a meeting and I ask people for their opinions and nobody says anything, so there’s some evidence that’s there that they’re not quite picking upon. And they concluded, they almost see themselves as heroes that are busting their butt for the organization, and what’s with these other people? So as much as they’re really smart in certain ways, they don’t always read the greens very well. Dr. Crawshaw has described as they’re missing that emotional sonar to pick up the cues sometimes about just how much people are pulling back the harder they push. 

Lynn:

What I found really interesting was sometimes these people had conflicting views about losing their cool with people. They thought, on the one hand, “Maybe that’s what you need to get people to get moving,”  because they’re not skilled leaders. “So maybe if I bark at them, that’ll get some action.” Or, “I had every right to get mad at them because they did drop the ball. They didn’t get it in on time or the quality  

wasn’t what it should’ve been.” 

Lynn: 

They have this cognition going on. And then at the same time, they’ll often say to themselves, “Well  gosh, that didn’t go very well.” Because once they’ve calmed down and they’re not as emotionally  triggered, the thinking part of their brain, frontal lobes kick in and they go, “I’m not sure that I handled  that the best possible way.” 

Lynn: 

But the part of their EQ, the emotional regulation part, is often an area that needs work, so when they start to get triggered, when someone makes a mistake or something happens before they know it, it’s spiralled out and then they’ve lost it and said things that were hurtful. 

Lynn: 

And this brings us back to the whole sort of organizational environment. Typically there’s a lot of stress,  so these leaders are already stressed and feeling pressured, and when something goes wrong and they aren’t able to calm themselves down sufficiently before they throw the pan or they smashed their fist down on the table, or they say something that’s going to be disrespectful or hurtful to other people. 

Stephan: 

Thinking about the organization now, and they’re often coming to us, as I mentioned because they have this problem and we recognize, acknowledge that there are systemic issues that are exacerbating the issue. What does an organization need to do before getting coaching for this individual? Because it  seems a little too simplistic to just say, “Okay, well, let’s coach this individual and they’re going to  improve their behaviours.” 

Lynn: 

Yeah. 

Stephan: 

Is there a checklist? What should the organization be thinking about prior to getting that coaching? 

Lynn: 

Well, I think the first thing they have to decide is whether they want to keep this person, they honestly want to keep this person. Sometimes I’ll just draw a little quadrant model and I’ll say, “So if the vertical  axis is the degree to which this person delivers results, so 10 is they’re amazing and zero they’re out so  good, if that person’s not in the upper part of that scale in terms of their ability to deliver results, and  

then you look at the horizontal scale which is their conduct, if their conduct is also on a scale of one to  10 in the lower half of that scale, then you’ve got somebody you probably should be considering exiting  because they’re not really strong in either of those.” That’s one thing to think about in the first place before you decide whether you’re even going to think about some intervention.

Stephan: 

Before you go onto the next point, I want to just make that distinction and really highlight it because I  think making that distinction between performance and conduct is really important. I think a lot of individuals within organizations, whether they’re abrasive or not, will smush those two things together.  They don’t realize that they’re actually separate, right? You can be high performing and have great conduct. You can have poor conduct and, and be a high performer as well. I like that. I appreciate that distinction. Thank you. 

Lynn: 

Yeah. I would say that your regular coaching, executive coaching, is the person who is in the upper quadrant in terms of their ability to deliver results and performance, but they’re also high in terms of conduct. So that’s a regular coaching engagement. 

Lynn: 

An abrasive leadership coaching engagement is specialized because it is for that person who is in that upper left-hand quadrant, producing results but not so great on conduct. The other thing I’d invite an  organization to think about is, “What’s your timeline?” If this has been going on for quite a long time, is there too much water under the bridge? Will people actually trust this person again, even if they really try to change? Or is it just too far gone, there have been things said that are really quite egregious and people don’t want to work with them anymore. 

Lynn: 

Or, do you have the funds and the time to commit? Because before you intervene, you want to make sure that you actually can do a proper job of trying to bring this person back into line with what you’re looking for from your leaders. It’s not going to be a 360 and three-session debrief kind of a deal. It’s going to take some time and commitment. 

Stephan: 

That part about knowing whether or not the organization can support this individual through their change, I think that’s a good question. What we find is often the person we’re talking with, we’re communicating with, is a leader and they really see the positive sides of this abrasive leader. They don’t necessarily experience the impact personally one-on-one. And so how does that type of individual assess whether or not is there too much water has passed underneath the bridge? 

Lynn: 

Yeah, that’s a really good point. Very often, these individuals manage up quite well. And so not only are they beloved by clients, but also senior management or the board may think very highly of them. So their behaviour with them is usually more controlled and more planful, and then they lose it with their coworkers, their peers or their direct reports when the pressure gets to them and nobody’s really looking. 

Lynn: 

By the way, I think it’s important to emphasize we’re talking about a pattern of behaviour, not the occasional outburst. I think lots of us can say we were not at our best at certain times under pressure,  but this is an ongoing issue.

Lynn: 

Typically or very often, the complaints go to the HR department, the human resources leader, not the boss of the toxic leader. Then human resources will bring this to the attention of the leader’s boss. One of the things that’s really important is that the leader’s boss actually buys that there is a problem and is willing to support, not just bringing in someone from the outside to work with this leader, but actually to be a good internal leader who’s willing to have the initial conversation with this abrasive leader, even if he or she hasn’t experienced the behaviour themselves. And to draw that line in the sand, that the behaviour cannot continue. As much as they value what this person brings to the organization, they cannot in good conscience allow them to continue acting that way with staff. It’s just too incongruent with the values of the organization and that has to be really clear. As is that we want to help you. 

Lynn: 

Nobody wants to be sent to coaching with a gun to their head. That’s not likely to be very successful. So that boss, the boss of the abrasive leaders, the conversation is really important in setting up the intention of this, the support that will be given. 

Lynn: 

And also hope. I’ve had abrasive leaders come to me and say, “I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can change. I’ve been acting this way for a long time and it seems daunting. I’m really not sure  where to start.” The thing to remember is this coaching isn’t just vertical development. It has to be partly that, where they’re looking at their identity and their worldviews and their mental models of leadership, all that sort of deeper stuff. Also to help them get started, they have to get through just the  shock of, “Oh my gosh, this is how people see me?” Which can bring up a lot of shame, even anger,  “Why didn’t they tell me? This has been going on this long.” They need to get through that. 

Lynn: 

They also need to get some simple tools around, “What do I do when I get triggered? How do I have a  conversation that doesn’t leave a person feeling demeaned, but we still talk about what needs to happen? How do I calm myself down when I’m noticing I’m getting stressed? How do I get back in touch with what is actually going on in my body that gives me signals I’m starting to get hooked and stressed?”  Because a lot of these individuals have lost that connection with the body, they’re “doing machines” and strong thinkers. 

Stephan: 

For you as the coach, what do you require, then, from the organization? Because of course, you want to be set up for success, right? Even if they paid you gobs of money, I suspect there will be conditions under which you’re just not going to work because you want to produce results and you want to be able to support that leader in making behaviour change. 

Stephan: 

What are some of those specific requirements that you have for engagements that you take on? 

Lynn: 

Yeah, you’re bringing up a really important point. Both individual and organizational readiness is key. In terms of the organization, as I mentioned, the boss has to be all in. This can’t just be something delegated to an external coach and she or he washes their hands of this, the problem. Not only the initial conversation but providing ongoing feedback to this individual, participating in alignment conversations from time to time with the coach, they need to be willing to do a 360, so collecting multi-rater feedback from the organization. Again, that takes some time, it takes some energy and there’s usually some cost. I use both narrative 360 and I use the leadership circle, so there’s the investment in doing something comprehensive. 

Lynn: 

There needs to be a sincere desire for the organization to give this individual a chance. If it’s just, “We’re  going to get rid of them, but before we do, we can say we tried coaching and we’ll give them a few  sessions.” That’s not the work I would want to do. 

Lynn: 

It’s going to be probably six, eight months, maybe longer. This behaviour may have been going on for 30  years, so to think it’s going to change in half a dozen sessions isn’t realistic. 

Lynn: 

There needs to be clear contracting up front, so there’s that understanding that the coach and the coachee relationship is confidential. Even though there’s a 360 and all this information, that is only going to be shared with the abrasive leader receiving coaching. And then I work with that leader to take that back to the people who gave the feedback. 

Lynn: 

There may be some mea culpa that’s needed, but also people want to know what it is that the leader got out of this. What are they working on? And quite frankly on the mea culpa side, even the organization may need to do a mea culpa, like “We should have given you this feedback a long time ago and we now want to do it differently. And we want to support you in getting there.” 

Lynn: 

Then the other part about the person’s readiness, they can’t just be giving lip service to this, “Okay, if  that’ll get you off my back, I’ll do coaching.” They do have to really want to change and put their skin in the game. It’s not an easy thing often because I find these leaders are not necessarily people that are used to opening up about their feelings and what’s going on really inside of them, that’s causing them to get stressed and then take it out on other people, or what’s really driving them. This may be really new territory for them. The willingness to have that courage to open up to somebody and start to understand their behaviour and start to experiment with new ways of being with other people takes a lot of commitment. 

Stephan: 

Yeah. Are there ever cases, have you come across cases where the readiness appeared to be there, at least they’re giving it lip service, but then ultimately it wasn’t there and you have to either pull out or stop the engagement. Does that happen? 

Lynn:

Yeah, sometimes I think people don’t realize how hard it will actually be for them. And if these are very task-oriented, driven, busy people, now to carve time out to be reflective about their behaviour, to sit down and talk to somebody about what’s going on in them, that can be a really foreign thing. So they can get pulled back into their busyness right. If we’re talking about a system, systems tend to want to return to homeostasis, whatever’s familiar. Breaking that pattern may not happen really easily. That’s  why they need a strong coach who’s not only compassionate and willing to work with this person and  not see them as evil and disordered and not worthy of help, but someone who cares and cares  enough to say, “Hey, we’ve got to talk about what’s going on here.” If they start showing up late for calls or they cancel at the last minute, or they haven’t done what they said they’d do in-between the coaching sessions, these are all signals that an experienced coach would know where signs that things are getting off the rails. 

Lynn: 

Also, the coach has to do their own inner work because to be able to be there with someone and create a safe container in which they can do this work, but still be challenging and strong in a good way,  because these are smart people and they’re quick. The coach has to be on his or her game to work with them. 

Stephan: 

A hundred percent. Lynn, any final thoughts for an organization that is dealing with an abrasive leader?  Any last comments that we didn’t cover? 

Lynn: 

The main thing that comes to mind for me is just, don’t delay dealing with this situation. You basically will eventually have to step back and go, “How did we get here? What’s missing in our system? Are we rewarding the wrong behaviour? Or are we rewarding just results and not how people get results? Are we not choosing the right folks to be leaders? Are we not preparing them for those roles adequately?” We can do all that sort of review of what do we need to change to avoid this in the future? 

Lynn: 

But if we have a situation here and now that for whatever reason is happening, it’s incumbent on us, not just to create a physically safe work environment for our people, but a psychologically safe environment.  It’s not only the safety of the people around and their wellbeing at work, so they can go to work and come back feeling good about things every day. But the organization’s own reputation is at stake if they allow this to continue. 

Lynn: 

Finally, what I would say is with a lot of these leaders, their own personal wellbeing is at stake. I’ve seen some of these leaders, the reason they act this way is they’re so brittle. They’ve pushed themselves so  hard, not taking vacations or not taking care of themselves. As long as this keeps going, that starts to erode the wellbeing even of the abrasive leader. 

Stephan: 

Would you say that there’s not just a financial motivation or financial responsibility for the organization to address it, but also a moral one?

 

Lynn: 

Yeah, I believe there is. And organizations can have both because if they can help turn around this leader, they salvage this contributor who has all kinds of experience and great skills, and they protect the wellbeing of their culture, the health and productivity and potential that’s just waiting to be tapped into in the organization. 

Stephan: 

Well, that’s a perfect note to end on, Lynn. Because that’s what I mentioned right at the beginning.  We’re all about unleashing the potential of organizations. So thank you, Lynn. I really appreciate your time and your insights and the great work that you’ve done over the years to assist organizations with abrasive leaders. 

Lynn: 

Thanks for inviting me today.

Fireside Chat Ep 3: The Effects of Toxic Leadership on Psychological Safety W/ Martijn Sjoorda

Watch the interview here:

 

 

Stephan: 

Hi, my name is Stephan Wiedner and I’m the CEO of Noomi.com. And today’s recording is part of a series that we’re doing on toxic leadership. Now, of course, the goal for your organization or any organization is not simply to eliminate toxic leadership but to build an environment where individuals within that organization can really thrive and grow and achieve incredible results. And today’s guest Martijn Sjoorda. Welcome, Martijn thanks for joining me here today. 

Martijn: 

Thank you. 

Stephan: 

Why I have you on today’s recording is because we’re going to be talking about psychological safety and how that affects toxic leadership or how toxic leadership rather affects psychological safety. We’re going to talk about what psychological safety is and your perfect expert in this topic, because you’ve been working with many teams across the globe, and you are also a partner of the Fearless Organization that is Amy C. Edmondson’s organization, and you’ll probably touch on her and her work in a moment if you’re not familiar with that name. And so again, welcome Martijn. I am so glad to have you here today. 

Martijn: 

Thank you. It’s lovely to be here because I am very excited about this topic and I have long been a  student of toxic leadership. And indeed, as you said, Stefan, it’s a real factor in low or high psychological safety. If you have simply put toxic leaders around, then almost by default, psychological safety will be lower. And second psychological safety is really a key driver for building high-performance cultures and environments in organizations. And you briefly referenced Amy Edmondson, and indeed I’m the co-founder with her of an organization called the Fearless Organization, and what we try to do is a measure of psychological safety in organizations and in institutions, but also bringing tools and best practices to workplaces. 

Stephan: 

Well with that. Can you explain what is psychological safety, especially for those who haven’t heard about it or haven’t read her book? 

Martijn: 

So Amy Edmondson has been doing about 25 years of research into teaming and a large part of a  successful teaming is defined by the level of psychological safety. And psychological safety in the official definition is; a belief that you will not be punished so humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions,  concerns, or mistakes. That’s the official that Amy gives. And that is I think something that you can really make operational because if you would go back in your mind in a situation where you didn’t feel psychologically safe, you would know that you would hold back on ideas. You really hold off on asking a  question and you’d probably definitely not raise your concerns or come forward, with any mistakes that you might’ve made. 

Stephan: 

And it’s also true that what you just described this desire or ability to speak up is directly linked to high performance.

Martijn: 

Absolutely. So there was a project that Google did, which is extensively, still very much high-performance organization. And over the course of five years, they ran a research project called Project  Aristotle. Very easy to find with lots of great reference materials to do your own work around this. But what’s really cool about that is they have about 12,000 individual data points, about 180 teams. And they were really struggling to find a common ground in research as to what would make and correlate with high-performance teams. And then suddenly they’ve stumbled upon Amy’s research around psychological safety and that’s where it then really clicked for them. And as a result of that, they started defining it and they found that psychological safety along with four other factors was the gateway to building high-performance teams, but indeed also a high-performance culture and that this notion of psychological safety actually also weighed over for over 40% over the other factors. And that simply if you didn’t have psychological safety, you couldn’t sustainably be high performing. 

Stephan: 

Mm-hmm (affirmative) So now let’s talk about toxic leadership and psychological safety. So how does a  toxic leader disrupt psychological safety? 

Martijn: 

So the foundation of psychological safety is that as we said, people feel free to come up with ideas,  questions, concerns, or mistakes. And let me impersonate the toxic leader for a couple of seconds, if I  may. And let’s say we are in our one on one weekly, and I would come forward to you and said… I would say things like, “Stefan, your performance is not up to scratch. You’re not delivering on the goals that we’ve set together. And therefore I had taken a real issue with where we are at right now in our business relationships. So you need to shape up your performance because it’s really, really getting  under my skin right now.” All right, if you just sense how that comes across. 

Stephan: 

Well, I don’t even know what to say. I’m kind of speechless, to be honest, 

Martijn: 

But there’s precisely the point. From a neuroscientific perspective. What happens if I use that type of language and you know that I’m in a position of power, what actually happens is that you go to the lower sort of reptile part of your brain and your fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered. And unfortunately, that part of your brain has sort of a three-second advantage of the higher part of your brain, your executive function. And you just shut down, put very simply fear makes you dumb over… that is toxic and display toxic behaviors is that they shut people down. And because they shut people down, they will not get the benefit. So, instilling the fear of some deity, to use proper language, into people is actually a really, really useless leadership strategy over time because people will burn out, the attrition rates in your organization will be higher and that’s really bad for the climate in your organization and not conducive to generating high performance. 

Stephan: 

So Martijn, if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying then is that a toxic leader breeds fear within their staff, within their organization. People are afraid to speak up and that fear is basically making them, as you said, dumb. And I guess it’s the team and the organization that suffers right. The organization and team lose their ability to learn is that right? 

Martijn: 

That’s right. And maybe we can try a little experiment because I could perhaps illustrate this quickly on the basis of the model that is in Amy’s book, The Fearless Organization. I hope the audio works. 

Stephan: 

I can still hear you. Yeah. 

Martijn: 

So an overlay is in essence, with Amy’s model where she says here, you would find yourself in the apathy zone. Here, you would find yourself in the anxiety zone. Here, you can find yourself in the comfort zone, and here is where you actually would aspire to be. It’s the comfort zone, sorry the learning zone. What this overlays nicely with is a Moodle developed by [Kim Scott 00:10:12] where actually what  you need to learn to do as an effective leader is you need to be able to care personally, and you need to learn how to challenge directly. 

Martijn: 

If none of that has happened, you run the risk of ending up in manipulative insincerity. If there is too much for sensitivity and caring versus me, you might end up in ruinous empathy. But particularly if you have touchy leaders that tend to quite often be lots of challenging directly to you and you end up with obnoxious regression, and obnoxious regression really shuts people down and what you’re striving for to be learning to own this balance. And that’s also what you hopefully will teach your leaders. Is that a  divorce where people can be both challenged directly and also feel that’s where you create the climate for learning zone? And that is what Kim Scott defines as radical candour if that makes any sense to you. 

Stephan: 

Yeah, that made sense so you’re walking through the model by Kim Scott, the radical candour model, but then before you got into that model, you were talking about the different emotions you might feel in each of those states. So you’re going from a place of high anxiety to that obnoxious aggression quadrant,  which is characterized by a high amount of direct challenge and a low level of personal care. And that puts people in a high state of anxiety. That makes a lot of sense to me. 

Martijn: 

But also as a knock-on effect, probably what will happen because people don’t dare to come forward is that they actually, after having such a negative experience, will opt for, well, I’ll mitigate this by just be reverting to manipulative insincerity. So I will not come forward with anything, but you’ve effectively put yourself in the space that Amy defines as the apathy zone. You have both got low psychological safety as well as low motivation. 

Stephan:

So is that what you would call a yes man or something like that, like someone who’s just there to please that leader and say: “Yes, I’ll do that. Uh-huh. That’s a great idea. Wonderful idea. Let’s do that. Let’s detonate a bomb in our own production facility. Sounds great.” Got it. 

Stephan: 

So some of the clients that come to us, Martijn they’ve, they’re obviously describing situations similar to what you’ve described, whether it’s an individual and they’re causing toxicity within their organization.  And here’s the kicker. It’s often someone that’s been with the organization for a long time, years in fact.  And it makes me think that there’s something within organizations that perpetuates toxicity or allows it to happen at the minimum. So can you speak to that at all in your experience? 

Martijn: 

Yeah. I think there are two types of dynamics that come to mind. One, if you take the humanity out of it and you solely look at milestones goals and financial performance. People with what I would define as toxic personality traits are often great at getting the results, but the results are only hitting the numbers.  And we’re not looking at the goals to humans of hitting those numbers when they’re being charged on by people who clearly have got toxic traits. So that’s one aspect. Also what I’m starting to see in organizations is that quite often, people who hit the C-suite have worked years and years to get there.  And when you interact with them, they are often the nicest people to interact with. But the people who are on C minus one or C minus two, often have got more toxic traits because they’re literally doing the hard work or even the henchmen work for the people in the C-suite. 

Martijn: 

And they do that often also with the best intentions. But what you got to know based on the work of Art  Kleiner, who wrote a book called, Who Really Matters: The Core Group, which he argues that organizations don’t exist to make the world a better place or to create shareholder value, but they exist to serve the purpose of a core group of people, is that these people actually are amplifying behaviour of the top leader. So in order to be more like the leader, certain behaviours really get amplified and this often translates into toxicity as well. So somebody makes the directive COMMENT that needs to be followed up. Or sometimes somebody makes a comment that is perceived as being directive and then in order to do good people will go to extremes to deliver on what they think that particular comment of the CEO meant. 

Stephan

Mm-hmm (affirmative) So that’s not really a case of the C-suite individuals modelling a certain behaviour and the C minus one or C minus two in adopting that behaviour or is it a learned thing as in, okay, so I saw how you got to where you are now. So I’m going to do the things that you’re doing to get to where you are now, is that okay? 

Martijn: 

No, of course, you’re going to get the consultant’s answer. It depends. Because what we say in our profession is that context is really key. Whereas the CFO might say context a caches game, but I think understanding context is more of a feminine trait and it’s very context-specific. So it may be that there is just a culture where over-aggressive behaviour is associated with achieving sales success. I mean, you only have to look at the Glen Gary, Glen Ross movie, which is a beautiful depiction of that type of macho culture. And then it’s just ingrained in the whole organization, but it may also be that you know, and that’s quite often, I think that’s where it’s probably relevant for newbies who work with helping toxic leaders transform themselves. It’s often that people have gotten to where they go in the organization by displaying a certain type of behaviour. 

Martijn: 

And as a result of them hitting their numbers and their performance goals, in essence, people have really sort of, what can we say in Dutch, someone who’s been holding a hand over their heads to mean that they’ve been supported by, would you almost call people who are complicit with them because they’re happy with them getting the results and they tolerate expert if deleted behaviour because they’re happy with the results that that certain individual has been getting. And then it comes to a certain point where there is so much attrition in Mike’s department, that it actually comes on the radar. 

Stephan: 

So you mentioned our work and predominantly the work that we’re doing is to deliver coaching for toxic leaders. And we’ve been able to see some tremendously positive results because ultimately what we’ve discovered is that many toxic leaders, even though they breed toxicity within the organization don’t necessarily intend to do so, they don’t necessarily have malicious intent. And so when they, when you can shine a light on the impact that they’re having on the individuals around them, and you can show them another way of operating, then they can embrace that. And driving from their competitive nature,  they can, they can make some behaviour change that sticks. And in your work, you’re often working with senior leadership teams and inevitably some of those teams are going to have some toxic leaders. So how do you as a consultant or a team coach, whatever title you want to give yourself, how do you work with those types of individuals? I’m sure you have some crazy worst stories. 

Martijn: 

Yeah, I think what we do is we often some form of a measure to be able to present data. And that may be getting really frank 360 feedback from peers, subordinates. And in some cases, the layer of both and then we use that data not to put somebody in court so to say, but to really creates a space where there’s also for someone who’s been identified as a toxic leader, the psychological safety to not go into a defence response but to really take in the feedback that we have gathered. 

Martijn: 

And one of the things that we are starting to use increasingly is actually our instruments that we’ve developed to measure psychological safety because low tech, low psychological safety is a clear indicator that there may be toxic behaviour around. But what’s interesting because people who are identified as people with toxic traits often are very competitive and very numbers-oriented. They actually, as a result of the fact that a number… For example, their department on psychological safety is low to critically low will actually come into their response, that they normally have numbers that you’re like, this is really bad. I need to do something about this. 

Stephan: 

Mm-hmm (affirmative). 

Martijn:

Also, objectifying the impact of the behaviour, and then in parallel, there is lots of personal work to do because what we got to remember is that people who hurt other people have often been hurt in a  traumatic way somewhere in the course of their life. So you also have to have compassion and to be able to hold the space and executive coach to really unpack what may be, even in the childhood of a toxic leader, went wrong. And right here she is like, has become as she has become. 

Stephan:

So all of this that you’re describing is all done. One-on-one then you’re working with the leader only,  you’re collecting 360 feedback on behalf of that leader. You then debriefing it with them. You’re also presenting psychological safety metrics that you may have collected. Is that, is that correct? 

Martijn: 

That is the first step. Because quite often people are quite unaware of the impact their behaviour has.  Had a brilliant exchange where two of my colleagues who are now facilitators introduced themselves around the question, why is psychological safety important to you? And one of my colleagues said, well,  I used to have a boss who was like this and very toxic. And that’s why I know what the impact is. And I’ve found ways to work through that. And then one of my older male colleague said, well, I was like that boss. 

Martijn: 

And then a subordinate had the courage to call me out and say, basically to me, you are destroying my life. And that was my wake up call from the universe on forever grateful to her because that set me on the path to doing more personal work, to understand what I saw as go-getting was often by other people experienced as pedantic, aggressive and putting them down. But what we do to answer your question with people, once we’ve had the awareness part of accomplished is really look at okay, how does it show up in a team? And then also contract with a team to see how by just shifting the interaction a little bit, and also intervening at the moment in team meetings to see how they could also deal with,  for example, the difference is to shift that by doing direct interventions. 

Stephan: 

So when you’re working with teams, I’m sure there are times when you stepped into the room and it becomes fairly apparent to you that there is toxicity there. I think we can all relate to when let’s say in your family, there’s been a fight. And then you walk into the room, you walk into the household, you can feel the tension between the individuals. And I suspect that some senior leadership teams are that way. And I’m sure you’ve walked into some rooms like that. How do you handle that? How do you facilitate dialogue in that kind of environment? 

Martijn: 

Pause for one moment? Can you hit the recording on both? That’s a great question. I think what’s interesting is you, you mentioned family and when you walk into the family setting, you have immediately got a sense of what’s going on. But indeed, when you walk into the boardroom, sometimes you don’t stop being human. So my counsel is always people also to really look more for what’s happening non-verbally, and I’ve become really attuned to that over the course of my work for decades now with senior teams. 

Martijn:

But what’s, we often try to do is driven by the idea that you mentioned the word dialogue. And a lot of my background is around working with dialogue, as per David Bone, Bill Isaacs and Peter Garrett’s notion of that, is that people tend to go into the boardroom and be very focused on delivering on their agenda. So by default, we’re starting to see from the data, boards are a little less psychologically safe because they’re clearly the board of an organization, but quite often they’re not really a team because they have their columns in the organization in which they work. 

Martijn: 

So what’s quite often quite transformative when we start working with boards is that we really look at,  Hey, where’s the human connection and how’d you make that human connection. So we spend quite some time, you’re getting people to introduce themselves, but also saying a few words more about their personal background. And you’d be surprised how many people know very little about each other, even if they’ve been on the board with each other for quite some time, and then to really investigate, where do you need to meaningfully come together as a team or as a sub-team in the board. And where is it actually not so useful to go through this ritual of sitting in a board room with 12 people following a  highly structured agenda? And by just also looking at what the rhythm is, and what’s a good mechanism for reflecting and just also hanging out with each other and just starting to do work on projects with each other tends to really shift the game already. 

Stephan: 

Mm-hmm (affirmative) I mean, I could view that as being kind of like a, what are you saying? We got to hold hands and sing kumbaya here. You know, like be all buddy, buddy. I think a lot of people would argue there was no real room for that. Or there was no place for that. What’s the benefit. 

Martijn: 

That’s in a language that boards understand, which tends to be more powerful and results-oriented.  Sometimes you need to slow down to go faster. So it’s always fascinating to me that people think that the loss of being human stopped, the further stopped being important. The further you go up to the rooms, the latter in the organization, the more you get to a higher place in an organization, the more being human and actually having empathy and also just human interest in your direct colleagues, but also in your subordinates becomes important. Because people make a connection to you on the basis of the fact that they trust you and they feel safe. 

Martijn: 

And as a result of making that investment and also showing up genuinely, that’s where the real transformation happens. I mean, if you look at a woman like Angela Ahrendts and what she accomplished with her colleague, Christopher Bailey in revamping Burberry’s, which was solely based on finding a way to be in touch with her teams around the world and the same thing at  Apple, which is entirely based on making a real human connection, because if you feel connected to your colleagues, to your organization and the purpose and mission of your organization, and you feel safe, guess what, then you are able to look at the Apple genius thing because she is responsible for the retail business. 

Martijn: 

You may have had an experience in a real Apple store from an Apple genius. The way they connect with you is part of the social fabric. And that’s why you have a great customer experience because it’s real.

Stephan: 

Well, you did mention Apple. And of course, perhaps one of the most legendary leaders in Silicon Valley is Steve jobs. And I mean, the results he produced are undebatable, but I think there’s a bit of a  legendary story of him being the ultimate hard-ass if you will, how do you make sense of him? Was he,  was he a toxic leader or was he a brilliant leader or was he both? 

Martijn: 

I guess he was probably both because I don’t have firsthand experience of him, but I have been a  student of him for as long as I can remember. And I’ve read all the significant biographies about him as well as interact with people who’ve had personal dealings with him. But what I find very interesting is that he was extremely challenging and he could be extremely rude, but he was extremely challenging and rude, mostly on things that weren’t working according to him. And he would of course throw the most terrible insults to his people. But if you look at the people he continued to work with productively,  they all say even on camera that they loved him very much. So somehow there was a productive dynamic between these people and either they were able to tolerate lots of abuse, but there was probably also a super high-performance culture. 

Martijn: 

Because I’ve come across people who really work in what, in soccer terms, you would call the premier league. And what I do notice that they are extremely good at taking feedback, even if it comes sometimes in extreme forms because they also really work on building relationships. And also I think the times are changing. So I think there’s much more awareness and also research on the impact of these behaviours. So I think there’s a whole generation of people who are now coming into the workforce who simply will not take toxic behaviour from leaders and they will call them out on it, or they will actually demand that HR takes action. 

Stephan: 

Right. I think you’re probably right on that one. We’ve certainly seen it with the Black Lives Movement.  There have been individuals that, borderline racist or making derogatory comments and that obviously can not persist within organizations and people are speaking up. People are feeling empowered enough to say that this is not good enough. I want to report to this leader. So I think that’s a positive change when you agree. 

Martijn: 

I think that’s a real positive. In the end, compassion is important, but there are things that are simply unacceptable. And I think the climate in that sense globally is just shifting towards, there are things that are simply not acceptable with no exceptions. So, Mike who in the past decade was hitting the great results was making crass, sexual comments, sexually-oriented comments to women, and probably also derogatory remarks to people of colour were tolerated it because he was getting the results and where we are at thankfully now is that I think we’re trying to figure out what fundamental decency means. That’s a  great, great guidepost. What is the fundamental decency? If you think about fundamental decency, you know that it’s not okay to make derogatory comments about anybody on the basis of race, of sexual orientation or sex and so on. 

Martijn:

And just to look back on Amy’s book, she has three things that she defines that leaders can do. It’s framing the work, it’s inviting participation, and it’s responding productively. For one thing of responding,  productive, an element of responding productively is that you sanction clear violations as a leader,  because if you want to structurally drive out toxicity out of your organization, you also need to note, as  we say, in Dutch, measure with two measures, if you say you do not tolerate racism, and there isn’t a  clear incident of somebody making a racist comment, then it’s simple that it’s, that is a clear violation  and that needs to be met with sanctions 

Stephan: 

And probably immediately right away. So for individuals who are in an organization that is seeking help for a toxic leader, or maybe a number of toxic leaders, any final thoughts or bits of wisdom that you want to impart on them in their role to eliminate toxicity, their organization. 

Martijn: 

I think what’s important is that you have to be aware of what your position is in an organization because we’ve seen lots of examples where people have been identified as whistleblowers and then have been ousted from the organization. So I think the number one thing is who can you really trust?  And is there someone in a position of power that you might take this up with and you can make a clear  contract about the implications that raising this in a formal way has, and to be really clear about what  your rights are, particularly in a North American setting or in an Anglo-Saxon setting, and to also really  make sure that you limit the damage when you… Because it’s a very, very courageous move and it’s very hard. So you need to be very clear of what procedures your organization has for reporting this and what  the consequences may or may not be for you 

Stephan: 

Sure. And that’s appropriate to anybody within an organization. Now, people that generally come to us,  they are HR managers, or maybe someone with, within the sort of people side of the business.  And so I guess one thing I’m hearing is that it’s easy perhaps to point the finger at the toxic leader and say, that person is the problem and let’s fix the problem, but there are contributing factors that the organization can take care of. Like you mentioned the sanctions, having clear sanctions and being able to deal with any violations really quickly and systematically. So I think that’s a very important piece that organizations need to be attuned.

Martijn: 

I think what’s really crucial is that a doc chic leader cannot exist without a support system. So if there is a toxic leader, or there are multiple toxic leaders in an organization, there is a fertile ground for toxicity,  and there are underlying factors. So it also requires the organization to really look and go inward as to how it has fostered through systems, through processes, through perhaps perverted KPIs or perverts agreement, remuneration measures, how it’s helped foster this type of toxicity in the organization.  Because as you rightly said, you can say it’s Mike, but it’s not just Mike, because Mike must’ve had a  support system for several years or perhaps even for more than a decade because otherwise, he wouldn’t have felt the complete freedom to stray away from what he knows intuitively is not fundamentally decent. 

Stephan:

Yeah. Agreed. Well, Martijn, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure. Really appreciate you taking the time here and talking about this topic that is clearly something that you’ve done a lot of workarounds. 

 

Insights From Three Reformed Toxic Leaders To Help Organizations Extinguish Abrasive Behavior

With specialized coaching, we know toxic leaders can improve their behavior so they no longer lose their temper, treat others with disrespect, and lead through fear. 

 

If you are exploring options for a toxic leader in your organization, you would probably wish for a magic wand to make the “dysfunctional” behavior go away. It can happen, however, by exploring the journeys of three formerly abrasive leaders, the research of Lori J. Tucker (see references  at the end of this article), provides a unique angle that helps build empathy and understanding for those who cause harm in their organizations.

 

What you need to know is that toxic leaders can improve but it’s not easy. It’s hard work for the leader and they need the right support. Your ability to understand the leader, and not just their victims, will help you be a positive agent of change in your organization.

 

If you are an HR manager, L&D manager, CEO, or a board member hoping to extinguish abrasive behavior in your organization, you need to learn these key insights from leaders who have successfully reformed their behavior. 

Toxic Leaders Don’t Know How Bad They Are

The first step of the coaching process with an abrasive leader is to help them understand the impact they have on others. Although, the degree to which the leader’s abrasive behavior affects the people around them may be so obvious to you and other bystanders, it may not be obvious to the leader at all.

 

“Vincent [one of the formerly abrasive leaders who participated in Tucker’s research whose name was changed to protect his identity] described himself as being aware of his behavior yet not aware of ‘how deep the abrasive behavior negatively impacted people.’ It was not until the executive coaching that he comprehended how deep in the organization the impact of his abrasive behaviors had cascaded. (Tucker, p122)”

 

Another leader “disclosed, ‘My whole life everyone told me I need to lower my voice and not be like I was on the edge of my seat — I have always been kind of jumpy — right on the edge of the seat kid. So, I’ve tried to change that.’ Yet, he confided, “I’ve never really thought I was all bad, either. I like the passion and aggression.’ (Tucker, p150)”

 

The bottom line: Don’t assume that the abrasive leader in your organization understands the impact they are having on others. The right coach using the right strategy can help build the leader’s awareness. 

The Crucible Moment Was Key to the Leader Making Change

When working with a toxic leader, some of our clients are hopeful that by gently nudging the leader and dropping subtle hints, they will one day see the error of their ways and change their behavior. The evidence suggests something altogether different.

 

If you want to help a toxic leader, the stories of these three formerly abrasive leaders state that you need to intervene with authority, clear consequences, and a belief that they can improve. 

 

Vincent was the CEO of his organization and he was confronted by the Chair of the Board. The intervention was “very scary and humbling”, reported Vincent, and the imposed requirements were clear. “He had to a) engage with an executive coach, b) reduce the number of external board commitments, c) obtain a physical, d) provide mental and physical health records, e) adhere to twice-a-year 360 evaluations, and f) increase the number of one-on-one dialogues with the chairs. (Tucker, p103).” 

 

The strict requirements communicated to Vincent the seriousness of the situation and that the organization cared enough to do something about it: “I got the sense, the authentic sense, that they wanted me to succeed and that they were going to be supportive. Even though they had to give me that hard-hitting feedback together, they also wanted me to succeed. So, their support was really important to me.”

 

One of the formerly abrasive leaders was told he had to go through a coaching process or he would be fired. His “initial reaction was to get defensive. However, he acknowledged that it made him feel good to know that the company saw value in him, wanted to keep him around, and offered to incur the coaching expense. Yet he acknowledged, ‘It made me realize I am on this ice, too.’ (Tucker, p128)” He later added “I was forced to do it, but I was still going to do it…I knew I had to do this…there was just no option. (Tucker, p128)”

 

Jimmy [the third formerly abrasive leader in Tucker’s research] revealed that May 6, 2004, which he now refers to as ‘5604’, “‘was the day I got called out by my peers for bad behavior.’ He described it as ‘a very emotional day’ (Tucker, p147)” “Jimmy confided that he broke down in his office [after being called out]: ‘It was such a defining moment.’ It was then, in his office, that Jimmy made a conscious decision to make a change. If he did not, he admitted, ‘I was going down a bad path.’ (Tucker, p148)”

 

The bottom line: Orchestrating an intervention with authority and clear consequences may seem overhanded but, if delivered with care and support, may be just what the leader needs to commit to improving. 

The Reformed Toxic Leader Carries a Burden

Improving the behavior of a toxic leader is not a one-time activity that has a clear beginning and end. The leader has to go through an arduous process to make change and in order to make it stick, they need to continuously exercise self-control and overcome the fear – held by others – that they may revert.

 

Jimmy explains the ongoing challenge: “‘I had to be vigilant all the time. I always had to be constantly monitoring. It takes up a lot of energy. I am wired one way and I knew I had to focus some level of mental energy to keep things on track. Over time it got easier. As I continued to develop these skills, and they became habits, they became more automatic. For a while, it was constant vigilance.’ (Tucker, p 166)”

 

Vincent, meanwhile, recognized that his abrasive behaviors caused the people around him to be on edge. He knew that even if he apologized, the memories of abuse would not go away. Even years later, he reported that “‘Sometimes it can be disappointing or frustrating that someone thinks that I might be reverting, when it is not even possible — I am not even remotely close to behaving abrasively.’ …Those reactions, ironically, instilled in him the desire to stay focused on extinguishing that behavior. (Tucker, p 113)”

 

Bottom line: Since the behavior change process is ongoing, sometimes for years, the organization has to make a big commitment to the success of the leader to properly see it through. Usually that requires a significant upfront investment and potentially ongoing support into the future.

 

The summary:

  • Toxic leaders don’t know how badly they affect others
  • When organizations intervene, they need to do so with authority and care
  • And for the behavior change to stick, the organization needs to provide a strong commitment to the long-term success of the leader.

 

If you need help with a toxic leader in your organization, reach out to Noomii today for a free consultation.

 

Are you looking to introduce the topic of coaching to your organization? Check out this detailed guide written by Noomii CEO Stephan Wiedner: https://go.noomii.com/coachingebook

 

Follow us for more content on the topic of coaching toxic leaders!

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References

  • Tucker, Lori J., “A Narrative Inquiry With Three Formerly Abrasive Leaders: Stories of Disruption, Awakening, and Equipping” (2019). Digital Commons  @ ACU, Electronic Theses and  Dissertations. Paper 154.

Noomii Fire Side Chat Ep 2: How Organizations Handle Toxic Leadership With Noomii VP of Development, Amy Bastow

Stephan: 

Hi. My name is Stephan Wiedner and I’m the CEO of noomii.com. And I have a special guest with me  today, Amy Bastow. Now full disclosure, this is part of a series that we’re doing on toxic leadership. And  Amy’s my colleague. We work together every day. And what Amy brings as a unique perspective to this  concept of toxic leadership is that she’s kind of like the orchestra conductor, who is being able to move  many and various different coaching engagements forward. Coaching engagements with different  organizations, different leaders, many of whom are toxic. 

Stephan: 

And so she can see what’s happening from multiple, different perspectives. And so I think you bring a  really unique and interesting perspective. You talk to other individuals who are either researching toxic  behavior, or they are doing the coaching, and you get to sort of orchestrate it all. So Amy, welcome.  Thanks for joining me today. 

Amy Bastow: 

Thank you, Stephan. Happy to be here. 

Stephan: 

Awesome. So Amy, let’s start by describing the typical individual that you talk to in that very first  conversation. So they’re reaching out, what do they say to you? 

Amy Bastow: 

Okay. So typically the first person who will reach out to us from an organization is someone from human  resources. It could also be someone from learning and development or talent or organizational  development. Those are the typical titles that I connect with. And they’re reaching out because they  usually have an issue. It’s usually about a leader who they’re struggling with, they’ve typically tried a few  interventions previously, and they have come to a place where they really need a solution, because it’s  now having a visible negative impact on their business. 

Stephan: 

As a coaching organization, we see lots of different types of engagements, but we’re talking about  specifically toxic leadership. So what are some of the ways that A, they describe the individual and then  B, what are some of the impacts to the organization that they describe? 

Amy Bastow: 

Sure. It’s kind of comical, because the description they give me is almost a carbon copy every time. And  so it is a highly technical individual, who’s usually a superstar contributor, a superstar individual  contributor, that is. Where they’re having trouble is on the leadership side. It’s the people side. So  typically, what happens is that they are producing results, they are delivering above and beyond. Yet,  their department is voicing concerns. And typically providing complaints to HR around the way they’re  being treated and being spoken to by this individual. 

Amy Bastow: 

Typical things that come up with this leader is to direct. They can come off as arrogant, they know it  all. They lack patience, they have publicly humiliated one or more of the staff. And they are also causing a situation where they’re having people quit, even on the spot quit. And so this is like the typical model  of someone that we work with. So someone who is highly technically competent, they are meeting all  their targets, but they’re really having some issues on the people’s side, and they can be considered  abrasive, that’s probably a great description for them. 

Stephan: 

Abrasive. And people are generally leaving, quitting. So that’s the impact on the organization? 

Amy Bastow: 

Exactly. I think some major things that we see coming out of that are that people are so intimidated by  an individual like this, that it does stifle innovation and creativity because individuals on a team feel less  safe to speak up and just speak their mind. So they stop challenging that leader, and they stop voicing  any sort of creative ideas that they might have for the fear that they’re going to be called out by this  leader. 

Stephan: 

That makes a lot of sense. Do the organizations recognize that? Do they recognize that their people are  not speaking up or contributing as well as they could be? 

Amy Bastow: 

Oftentimes, they don’t. Oftentimes, the symptom that’s coming up first will be engagement. They’ll have  run an engagement survey, and that comes up with very low results. So that’s their first clue that things  are not going well. The second would be retention issues, so they start to lose members of the team. It’s  

not often that they’re actually making the connection between a lack of creativity and innovation, and  how the leader is behaving. I would say that, that comes from a greater understanding of how the  leader’s behavior is actually impacting the psychological safety of the team. 

Stephan: 

Right. As I said, you’re kind of the orchestra conductor, right? Because our job is to turn these people  around. That’s ultimately what … I think, if you could say to these organizations, “Hey, if I can wave a  magic wand, what result would you want?” What would they say to that question or what have they  said to that question, for that matter? 

Amy Bastow: 

I would say the most common is, “Amy, I’m not looking for a miracle. I’m simply looking for this person  to be a respectful, professional who is treating their team in a way that they would want to be treated.”  And oftentimes, the organization is not expecting a full miraculous turnaround, they’re just simply  expecting this person to act like a professional. So I think that’s always a breath of fresh air for me,  because to be honest with you, it’s very difficult to say, a six-month engagement, to take someone from  no awareness of the impact that they have on others to this enlightened, and woke individual. 

Amy Bastow: 

So I greatly appreciate it when organizations have an understanding of this process and the  development process and how long it takes, and that they’re able to come to us and say I understand the realities of the situation. And what we’re looking for is for them to just come up to a level of respect.  That’s what we’re really looking for. 

Stephan: 

So is what you’re saying that it’s not possible to get to the … If they’re at one end of the spectrum, is it  not possible to get to the other end of the spectrum? Or is it that it just takes longer? 

Amy Bastow: 

You’re totally right. It is possible, it’s completely possible. I would say that it’s dependent on a few key  factors. Number one, the individual who is receiving coaching needs to know what’s at stake. And it’s  the responsibility of the organization to clearly communicate this to them. Not beat around the bush,  

not assume that they know that, by having this conversation, potential, their job is at risk. No. They  really need to spell it out very clearly. The organizations have a responsibility to tell the leader what’s at  stake. 

Amy Bastow: 

And when they do that, they set the coaching up for success, because that means that’s that aha  moment of, okay, I need to take this seriously. I’m not just doing this for compliance, I’m doing this,  because I’m potentially going to save my job. That’s what’s at stake here. And that’s often what needs to  occur. And so in that process is actually, the leader needs to feel like they are willing to move into  uncomfortable spaces. The leader needs to be completely committed to the process. And they need to  be open to being vulnerable in the process, which is something they may have never been in their career  before, have never seen a use for being vulnerable. So this is a huge jump. And because this is a huge  behavioral jump, it does take time. 

Amy Bastow: 

Another thing that I think is really important to consider is that we’re not just looking for the leader to  change their behaviors, we’re also looking for the perceptions of the teammates and colleagues around  them to change. And what we know from behavioral change is that those two pieces, behavioral change  and perceptions don’t change at the same time. So the perceptions of the team will take much longer.  So what we’d hope to do through an engagement is get into a place of self-awareness, sustaining  patterns of unhealthy behaviors and respectful behaviors, and then set them up for success. Because  this is the start of their journey and there’s a lot more work to do on their own as they move through.  And that takes time. 

Amy Bastow: 

And so six months, we’ll set them up on a great course. 12 months is better. And then that’s when  you’re going to see the perceptions of the team start to change. And when they start to change, they  will also support the positive growth that the leader’s behavioral change. 

Stephan: 

And obviously, I think what you bring uniquely to the table is, as I said, you’re kind of orchestra  conductor, making all of this happen. So this sounds all really good. And yet, how do you make that  happen? There’s a lot of pieces involved there. So why don’t we start at the beginning. You mentioned  that the organization needs to tell this leader that their job is potentially at risk here. That seems so obvious to me like, is it not true that organizations … Like, are organizations doing that? Are they having  that conversation? 

Amy Bastow: 

Rarely. 

Stephan: 

That has to be the first step, right? So how do you prepare organizations to do this?  So if you’re talking to the HR manager, are they the one to do that? Are they the one to go talk to that  leader and give them that firm assertion that you need to improve your behavior or else your job might  be on the line here? 

Amy Bastow: 

It should be their supervisor, the person who has the most contact with that individual and the most  authority over them in the organization. So sometimes in an organization where we’re coaching senior  executives, it’s actually the CEO who has to have this conversation. In some organizations where it’s  matrix differently, it’s actually HR. So it does depend on the organization and how much contact the  individuals have in the day to day for that conversation to the actually meaningful. 

Stephan: 

And how do you prepare someone to have that conversation? Like, how do you structure it? What’s the  key ingredients? 

Amy Bastow: 

So what I typically do is actually introduce the concept to the organization, whoever’s going to be having  the conversation. I usually like to have this conversation with HR and the supervisor at the same time,  that’s the best case scenario. One, explain to them the psychology behind why you want to have this  conversation. Because there is pushback that we do get. And the pushback would be, well, if we say this  to them, then they might just shut down and not going to do the coaching and be too afraid. So this is  actually what has typically been driving these behaviors. 

Amy Bastow: 

So organizations can be very consistent in toxic behaviors. When leaders are highly technical and  delivering results, the organization will weigh the impact of their behaviors against what the results are  producing. And so it eventually gets to a point where they have to say, okay, no, we do need to take  action. So that same philosophy of allowing them to actually have these toxic behaviors is what enables  them to not have this conversation. So they actually do need to sit down and have a serious  conversation. I asked the leaders … Well, I will ask HR and I’ll ask the supervisor exactly what is at stake  for this individual? So I need to understand it first. 

Amy Bastow: 

So will they be demoted? Will they lose their job? Is this a performance plan? What is really at stake?  And actually, the most common response I get is, we hadn’t actually thought about that. And so what I  then encourage them to do is actually take some time to really think about, if this coaching is not to  work, if this individual is not able to change their behaviors, what will be the consequences for them? Please, definitely confirm that in your mind. You need to know. And then once they’ve done that, then  they need to take that leader aside, and in a supportive, but firm fashion, they need to explain to them  that they would like to provide the opportunity of coaching to them because they are a real asset to the  organization, and the organization wants to invest in them. 

Amy Bastow: 

Why this is coming up is because X, Y, Z. These behaviors are coming up. We’re seeing evidence of it  here, here, here. And it’s having these specific impacts on the organization. We need you to know that if  you are not able to change these, if you are not able to commit to this process, there will be  consequences. The consequences to not participating are X, Y and Z. And that’s the most reasonable and  fair way that you can set this up for a leader. 

Amy Bastow: 

So one, coming in with this is an opportunity. We believe in you. You are valuable to this organization.  But you have to commit to growing in these areas, because it is having this impact, and we can’t allow  that to happen anymore. So you’re providing reason. You’re providing a rational framework for them to  understand the consequences of their own behavior and the consequences of actually not being open to  trying to improve those behaviors. 

Stephan: 

What if the organization is not prepared, Amy, to have that conversation because they don’t want … So  for example, if the outcome is of them not changing their behavior is that they have to be removed from  the organization, maybe the organization is not prepared to do that because they are such a valuable  contributor. Have you ever come across that where they’re like, we really don’t have much leverage  here, we have to just kind of put up with it. Have you experienced that? 

Amy Bastow: 

I’ve come across it a few different times. And the suggestion from the  organization is always to demote the person back to a role where they are an individual contributor. And  then oftentimes, what they’ll do is they’ll try to move them into another department so that they’re not  dealing with the same people that they were working with. Because typically they’ve muddied the waters and it’s pretty hard to come back from that if they’re not willing to try. 

Amy Bastow: 

So I would say that can be applied, that solution. Obviously, not ideal. I don’t think it’s ideal for most  leaders. I think if you ask most, they are not interested in being demoted. They would like to continue  in their leadership positions. So that’s not an ideal solution. One of the unfortunate side effects of such a  solution can be that the leader will take that position, and then they will look for something else. 

Stephan: 

Yeah. That’s usually one of the big fears of the organization, I think he said earlier. Is  that, because there’s such high contributors, they almost don’t want to rock the boat for fear of losing  that person. 

Amy Bastow:

You’re 100% right. It’s completely true. And oftentimes, it’s not completely the specific organization’s  fault. Oftentimes, this person has exhibited these behaviors throughout their entire career, maybe even  parts of their personal life. And they’ve been able to get away with it because they’ve been so talented  that people just say, like the common things people would say, that’s just him. He’s just like that. And  they make those excuses like, but he’s a genius. That’s typically what you’d hear. And so I remember an  organization came to us, and they said, yeah, we have this CTO, and he’s not going to be open for this  coaching you want to watch. 

Amy Bastow: 

This is what he typically does when he comes to a meeting. He’ll be there for about five minutes until he  opens up his laptop and just starts typing. He doesn’t pay attention. And then who leaves early. And this  individual thinks that coaching is just not for him, he doesn’t believe in it. You know what, he’s such a  genius, it’s just him. Like, it’s just him and that’s how he is. So we just deal with the toxicity. And so that  has been many organizations, that’s what they do. And then that person will leave that organization and  go to another organization, causing similar issues. So you can’t always be blaming the single  organization for the behaviors of that, that leader is exhibiting. 

Stephan: 

So in that case, though, where you explain the CTO, I believe it was, so the organization thought, that’s  just the way he is, right? They’re complicit in the behavior and they just think, well, it’s just the way he is  or she is. Is it not possible that their assumptions were wrong? That, that person wouldn’t be open to  coaching? Like, have you encountered that where they thought, this person is not going to be open to  coaching, but in the end, they are? 

Amy Bastow: 

Yes. And the way that I’ve seen that swing would be when the organization appeals to the leader as a  high performance professional. Because oftentimes, these highly talented leaders are extraordinarily  driven. We consider them to be, we call it driver. And that person deeply values success and  advancement. And when you can frame the coaching in a way that it’s given as an opportunity for high  performance individuals, then they’re often interested. They’re thinking, okay, well, I’m special. I  deserve this. I’m a high performance professional. And this is going to be just an additional leg up in my  career so I could advance further. 

Amy Bastow: 

To be honest with you, from a certain perspective, it is that. Organizations don’t invest in people who  aren’t high performance. They just let them go. So if you have Someone who has tons of behavioral  issues and is causing toxicity in an organization, and they’re also not delivering on results, and not seen  as a subject matter expert, then they won’t stick around. The organization is only investing in people  that they feel are incredibly talented. And they know if they could fix [inaudible 00:20:21] these  behaviors, then they stand to be an incredible asset for the organization. 

Amy Bastow: 

So it really is a privilege, and that’s how we often help organizations to successfully present coaching in a  way that they get buy in. Because the leader sees it as I am high performance, I am special, I deserve  this, I would love this opportunity, I’m special. A common phrase that we’ll use, and forgive me, I don’t  remember where this came from, its high performance athletes have coaches, so too should high performance professionals, and everyone gets that. Because oftentimes, these high performance  professionals are often athletes as well. So then they connect to that message. 

Stephan: 

Yeah, makes a lot of sense. Excuse me. So let’s sort of recap. So the first step is they need to have this  conversation, this difficult, challenging conversation with the leader that says, “Look, your job is  potentially on the line here.” So that’s part A of the conversation. So now what I’m hearing is, part B is,  and you’re a high performance, individual, and we want to support you in your development and in your  growth so that you can continue to be a high performing, high contributing member of our organization.  So that seems like a really good message to be delivering to make coaching very appealing. 

Amy Bastow: 

Absolutely. I would say another thing that’s extremely important about the way that we provide  coaching is that we are providing an external individual from outside of the organization. This coach is  someone who has either equivalent degrees or higher, has either equivalent or higher professional  expertise. So it’s someone that this individual is going to believe is on their same level, they’re going to  be able to build rapport and trust very easily with this person. And it’s important for the organization  and also for us to make sure that that leader knows that this external individual is unbiased and they are  on their side. 

Amy Bastow: 

Yes, the organization is paying for the coaching, but the coach is there to support the development of  the leader. They’re 100% for the leader. They’re on their side, they’re on their team. And so having that  also helps with them building a sense of trust around the engagement. That it’s not someone internal  that has their own agenda, has their own biases towards them. This is not that. 

Stephan: 

Okay. Good point. I almost forget that that’s a distinct value that we deliver to our clients. It’s sort of  like, yeah, that’s obvious to me. But I’m glad you mentioned that. So now let’s assume, let’s fast forward  a little bit. The organization talks to the leader, the leader says, maybe 100% willingly, maybe with some  apprehension, okay, I’m open to coaching. They connect with the coach, the coaching starts to kick off,  then what happens next? How do you facilitate that process next with the organization? 

Amy Bastow: 

Sure. So what we like to do is we like to open up the coaching with a kickoff call. So we have a call where  we have the sponsor, the direct supervisor, the leader receiving coaching, the coach, and then typically I  facilitate these calls. And they’re just a great time for us to all connect, get to know all the parties  involved who are supporting the success of this engagement, and then also really clearly outline the  goals and key objectives. And look at how we’re going to measure the success of this engagement. How  do we show that we’ve actually made progress? And sometimes, well, in the best instances, we can  actually align that with specific business outcomes. 

Amy Bastow: 

And that’s what we typically will challenge organizations to do coming into that meeting, is to think  about specific business outcomes that if the leader is to improve on these behaviors, it will impact them in a positive way. And that’s a great way for us to look at the ROI of coaching. And so that’s also a call  where we talk about confidentiality. Confidentiality is extremely important. It is the trust that coaching  is built on. And then we launched the coaching engagement. So typically what we do is we like to  suggest that there is a psychometric that happens. So that can be an MBTI, it could be a Hogan, a DISC, an EQI. 

Amy Bastow: 

It’s typically of the preference from the organizations. Organizations have their own set of preferences  to what assessments they like to use. And we also like to have the coaches chime in on that as well,  because they’re a subject matter expert, and we want them after everything that they know about this  individual to make a diagnostic recommendation for that assessment. Another thing that we love to do  is to run a 360 or we launch what we call a stakeholder centered coaching process. I would say, for  behavioral coaching, there’s no better method if the organization is open to it, which to be honest, not  all are. But when they are, it is the most effective method. 

Amy Bastow: 

And that is where we actually have the leader and their supervisors, sponsor, work together to identify  stakeholders in the organization, typically five to eight. Those are people who are impacted by the goals  they’re looking to achieve on a day to day basis. They have a stake in this coaching. And so it’s not just  the leader receiving coaching from the coach. No. It’s actually the stakeholders who are on a day to day  basis are supporting the behavioral change with this leader. And it’s by then providing feedback. There is  also a mini survey that’s involved in this process. And it’s a great way for us to then measure the success  of the engagement at the end. 

Stephan: 

Now, assuming that the coaching then kicks off after the kickoff meeting and starts to take off, what  kind of issues have you faced and have come up from there from anybody involved in that process?  Whether it’s the coachee or the sponsor, what kind of things come up or have come up for you? 

Amy Bastow: 

Sure. That’s a great question. Just first comes to mind with the stakeholders that in our process,  especially with an abrasive leader, they can be very intimidating. And so if a stakeholder is selected, they  may not feel comfortable being a stakeholder. And they may want to opt out of the process, but they  might feel very uncomfortable opting out as well. So that would be one of the complications that can  occur. I would say another thing is, if the leader is not committed to the process, and that happens  when they cancel sessions, or they don’t schedule sessions, there’s long breaks between the coaching.  And also, the coach cannot be as … 

Amy Bastow: 

Potentially, the coach is not being as proactive as they should be in scheduling those sessions. And so I  see that this is one of our roles to make sure that we’re seeing regular sessions happen. So we do have  a process manager here at Noomii who does track sessions, regularly checked in with the coach to make  sure that the leader is doing their coaching sessions on a regular basis. It’s really important to keep up  the momentum in the coaching. 

Stephan:

And then if they’re not, what do you do? 

Amy Bastow: 

Well, if they’re not, then we talk to the coach. And we also reach out to the organization and want to  keep them in the loop in terms of what’s happening, and typically involves a conversation between HR  and the individual to see what’s up, what’s going on. Why are they dissipating? Are they not finding  value? Now, another thing that we’ve also incorporated in our process, which organizations really love,  is a post-survey. So currently, it’s every three sessions, we send a leader a survey, and the survey is a  coaching satisfaction survey. And so it will ask them questions like, does your coach have the expertise  to help you achieve your goals? Does your coach or do you feel adequately challenged by your coach? 

Amy Bastow: 

So these are the sorts of questions you would ask. That’s really important because as an engagement  progresses, an engagement can go from one focus and then actually shift to another focus. And when it  shifts to another focus because things are rapidly changing within a business, then unfortunately,  sometimes that coach doesn’t have the expertise to build trust with that leader in that way. So we need  to be monitoring the success of how those leaders are being tracked, so that the leader continues to feel  engaged and involved in the process, dedicated to the success of the process. 

Stephan: 

And have there ever been cases where you end up speaking directly to the coachee to assess or help  them with any anxiety they might have about the coaching? 

Amy Bastow: 

Of course. Ideally, I love to get on the phone with the coachee, the leader, when we are actually  launching the engagement. So when we’re looking to find those coaches, I feel that it’s extraordinarily  valuable for me to get on the phone and speak with them. It does a few different things. One, it takes it  from this, kind of like a case on paper that I’ve just seen, this very flat sort of human being, and allows  me to see the complexities of who they are, and to see them as a human being. It connects me to want  to really drive the success of that engagement. 

Amy Bastow: 

Also, it allows me to get a sense of the type of coach that will work really well with them. And so when  the opportunity presents itself, it’s really valuable. And I always encourage organizations to have the  leader speak with us first before finding them coaches. That also establishes a relationship between  Noomii and the leader as this unbiased third party here dedicated to their success. So if there’s  something going on with the coach, if there’s something going on that they’re just not feeling good  about, then they feel that it’s okay to come to us and ask for our support in terms of how to navigate  that situation. 

Stephan: 

Is that because the coach isn’t supposed to be an unbiased third-party as well

 

Amy Bastow:

So the coach is an unbiased third-party, but they’re also connected to that individual. And so if the  individual is feeling unsure about the coach after they’ve been coaching with them for some time,  they’re unlikely to voice their actual concerns to the coach. Because they have a sense of relationship for  them and they would need to confront the coach. It’s just unlikely. And so they’re much more likely to  feel comfortable to come to us and say, you know what, it’s been great. I think, though, that my  coaching is now moving in another direction. I think I need more support in this area. How can we figure  that out? How can we navigate this? 

Stephan: 

And does that mean replacing the coach? Or does that mean talking to the coach and saying, hey, can  you do something differently? Or maybe both? Is it case by case? 

Amy Bastow: 

It’s definitely case by case. First and foremost, we definitely would want to go to the coach and have a  conversation to really understand from their perspective what’s happening. We’d also want to talk to  the supervisor in the organization to get their perspective. So we want to make sure that we have like a  full range of perspective so we understand what’s the best next move. To be honest, sometimes it is  replacing the coach. Sometimes that’s just the next best move. And sometimes it’s not. But definitely,  we are completely open to that if it means that the engagement will be more successful because we are  completely dedicated to the success of our clients. 

Stephan: 

So now let’s talk about the success and the results. What do the people in the organization report back  to you? So whether it’s the HR manager or the supervisors of those leaders, what do you hear back?  What do they say? 

Amy Bastow: 

Well, I just want to be really transparent and honest, that not every engagement with a toxic leader is a  home run. I would say that most are. There are some outliers. But speaking for the majority of  organizations that we work with, I would say that the feedback we get is, this person is thinking in a  different way. They are now showing up respectively. They are participating actively in discussions. They  are allowing others to speak. They have been promoted. I think that’s the best case scenario. This  person is now promoted, or this person … This is actually an exact quote. “This individual went from a  real concern to a true asset in this organization.” 

Amy Bastow: 

I find that there’s nothing more impactful than hearing those stories. One story that I found was  absolutely incredible. We had an individual who was on the verge of actually going on a performance  plan, which means that they’re likely to be let go from the organization. And within six months of  coaching, they were awarded manager of the year from their organization. So it’s those sorts of stories  that really drive our dedication to what we’re doing, because we see the impact of the organization. And  we also understand that impact on that individual leader is one thing, but there’s also a direct impact on  each and every member of their team. 

Amy Bastow:

And so when you have a leader who went from being arrogant, volatile, angry, could be considered a  bully, to someone who has this new perspective on, I’m not here to manage people, I’m here to develop  people, I understand that by being respectful and kind and listening to people, that I will have allies on  my side who will help me achieve that goal that’s so important to me, then those members of the team  then feel heard, they feel respected. 

Amy Bastow: 

And they typically get more interesting projects to work on, because that leader starts to let go some of  the things they’ve been holding on to and start to trust their team more. So they’re developing people  around them, they’re building succession plans, but they’re also improving the wellness of their  organization. And then obviously, there’s a huge trickle down effect from that, people go home happy.  So it’s really impactful. 

Stephan: 

Well, and it also leads to more coaching, doesn’t it, many times? 

Amy Bastow: 

It does. I would say that it would be very atypical for us to work with an organization and not continue  to work with that organization. We typically … I have to edit this part, Stephan. I’m sorry. I would say it’s  very uncommon. It’s very uncommon that if we were to launch an engagement with an organization, a  single engagement, that we wouldn’t get more. It’s always the case that, okay, we’ve seen a lot of  success, well, could you work with so and so now? And can you work with them now? And then you  get people putting up their hands, well, I saw that so and so coaching. I would also like coaching, too. I  mean, that’s the best case scenario, and we can spread awareness of coaching in organizations. 

Stephan: 

Yeah. But in a way that the organization, this is what I was hearing, with that organization, it’s so  obvious to them that there’s a positive ROI there. 

Amy Bastow: 

Exactly. We don’t want to just provide coaching for the sake of coaching, we want the organization to  see a direct impact. And it shouldn’t just be in the behavior, it should be that that behavior then causes  a business outcome that is positive. 

Stephan: 

So to recap, what you’ve said here with the things we’ve discussed, just a few of them, obviously, there’s  a lot of detail here. But really important is that very first initial conversation with the leader to let them  know what the consequences are of behavior change, or rather, not of changing their behavior. And also  treating it as a real positive. Demonstrating that you’re willing to invest in them because they are a high  performer. And then also, once you get that engagement going, it’s really critical that all the parties are  involved. 

Stephan: 

So you’ve got the supervisor, you’ve got the sponsor, the coachee, the coach, get everyone on a call  together to kick it off. Get really clear about what the expectations are, how success will be measured, and to maintain that communication throughout the engagement so everybody knows how progress is  occurring. And then of course, at the end, I guess, high-fiving and celebrating that success. Any final  thoughts, Amy, for anybody who is currently dealing with a toxic or abrasive leader within their  organization? 

Amy Bastow: 

I would say that don’t wait too long before reaching out for a coach. I have often found that  organizations wait until the last moment to reach out to a coach when there’s so much damage done and  it’s so hard to go backwards. It’s so hard to repair. So if you look at, I mean, it’s pretty simple math, look  at how much it’s going to cost to replace that person. Because whether they are terminated from the  organization or demoted, there will need to be a replacement, which means training time, recruiting, all  these sorts of things. And then look at the cost of coaching, which is a drop in the bucket compared to  the investment you make in replacing someone. And that organizations really need to invest in their  people. 

Amy Bastow: 

I think probably the most important thing that I’ve learned through our time working with abrasive  leaders, would be that they’re often not aware of the impact they have on others. So it is a responsibility  of their organization to make sure that they have the opportunity to understand what that impact is.  And it is not a simple conversation one time between HR and the leader. It takes time for that  understanding to take root in the leader and for them to actually be open to really internalizing the  impact they have on people. 

Amy Bastow: 

With the exception of probably one in my entire career, these are good people. They don’t have  oftentimes an understanding of the impact they’re having. Or it’s just literally not something that comes  into the way that they think. It’s not their communication model, and so they’re rubbing up against  others in a different way because they’re typically drivers. And so organizations need to really think of  them as people and that this is more complex than just a toxic leader. And that if they are open to  learning and being open to being vulnerable, then they can actually make great transformations. I know  because I’ve seen it over and over. 

Stephan: 

Fantastic. Thank you, Amy. It’s been a great and great contribution to our series on toxic leadership. And  have a great day. 

Amy Bastow: 

Thank you so much, Stephan. Pleasure.

 

Noomii Fire Side Chat Ep 1: Solutions To Toxic Leadership With Jathan Janove

Stephan:

Hi, my name is Stephan Wiedner. I’m the CEO of Noomii.com and we are all about unleashing the collective potential of individuals, teams, and organizations, so that we can solve the biggest problems in this world. Today I’m excited to have my special guest, Jathan Janov to chat with. 

What we’re going to be talking today is about toxic leadership and specifically your background. Jathan, having been a lawyer and now you’re working with a lot of the same individuals, I would say that maybe we can characterize them as toxic, but I would say they’re all strong-willed, super intelligent, and guess what? Sometimes they’re abrasive. And these are the types of people you work with. I think your skillset is really unique. I’ve probably talked to a thousand coaches, we’ve worked with hundreds of coaches over the years, and you bring a very unique angle, a very unique perspective to this specific challenge. And for those who are listening here today, you likely have a toxic leader in your organization, you’re probably wondering, “How do I deal with this?” Well, this is an individual who will be able to speak to that. So first of all, Jathan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into doing this work?

 

Jathan:

Okay. Yeah, sure. Well, I’ll start with my former career. For 25 years I was a labor and employment law attorney, and most of that time I represented employers. During that period, I encountered and dealt with numerous incidents of harassment, sexual harassment, racial harassment, bullying, even violence, threats of violence, all sorts of misbehavior in the workplace. And so, I litigated each case, I tried these cases. I also did a lot of advising of employers on how to deal with it. I conducted high-end investigations, I taught investigations and, so I had a whole bunch of intersections with toxic relationships, toxic workplaces, toxic behavior.

 

Stephan:

And now you’re no longer a lawyer; you’re not a practicing lawyer so you do not give any legal advice. But you do coaching, so how did you get into that?

 

Jathan:

Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a recovering lawyer. What happened was, over time I felt that all I was doing was treating symptoms, not causes and because, okay, there would be a specific problem with a specific individual or individuals, and I’d come in, some kind of intervention, but nothing meaningful changed. Maybe the immediate problem was solved, but the underlying causes in it: The problematic leadership in the organization, the overall unhealthiness of the culture, the unwillingness to really do the kind of interventions that can turn a problem bully into a good person, that kind of investment wasn’t being made. And so as a result I’d get a call again, and two years later or a year later, “Here’s another problem.” And so I really wanted to shift to how do you create a healthy culture? How do you intervene in a way that you could have a lasting solution as opposed to just putting out an immediate fire? And so that took me into the world of organization development, consulting and executive coaching.

 

Stephan:

And from that you have this underlying belief that… Or you must have, that people can change, that behavior change is possible for perhaps even the most abrasive leaders? I’m assuming that’s true, right? You believe that to be true?

 

Jathan:

I would say it’s more than a belief. I would say empirically, from my experience, I know it’s true. I’m not going to say it’s always true, but I know for a fact that there are people who were perceived as bullies, as bigots, as harassers, as sexist, as fill in the blank, that had a behavioral conversion that stuck. I can also tell you, there’s plenty of counterexamples to that, but I know for a fact that of this class of problematic people, there’s a subclass of that, that is with the right approach and the right timing and the right this and that, can change and not just change to, “Wait till it’s quiet, wait till the police go away and then I can go back and misbehave.” I mean, change in a fundamental way. I’ve just experienced it too many times to say it’s not a belief for me; it’s a fact for me.

 

Stephan:

So what do you think are the key ingredients then for making that behavior change in the first place, and then secondly, making it stick? What’s the formula there?

 

Jathan:

Well, my typical advice for an employer that’s in that situation with the… Somebody who’s a toxic leader who otherwise brings value. Okay. So first things first. Okay. There’s a toxic leader. Is he otherwise a good leader? I mean, should he be there anyway? Sometimes the answer is, “No they shouldn’t.” Then it’s simple; fire him. But let’s say the client or the employer says, “This person’s our top sales person,” or, “This person has great contacts. This person treats our customers like gold; it’s the employees he’s abusive to,” or whatever it is.

 

Jathan:

So the employer would like to try an intervention short of termination. So that’s the first thing. But what I say in that case is, you’ve got to be very clear. And what you need to tell that leader is, “We’re at a crossroads. There’s two paths, okay? There’s no third path. Because the status quo isn’t going to continue.” So path one is, we say, “This isn’t the place for you. There’s not a fit with our cultural values and our behavioral expectations. You need to move on.” Or we try an intervention, that’s with a goal of creating lasting, sustained meaningful change as perceived by others. And then that leader makes the decision, “Which path do you choose?”

 

Jathan:

The key thing though for the employer is, don’t slide into the third one, which is the sloppy toxic status quo. Don’t let the person off the hook. It’s an either/or. There’s no other alternatives; either/or. And that at least creates an opportunity for me as a prospective coach to have a candid conversation with that leader, and potentially to have the leverage where meaningful change could occur.

 

Stephan:

So that’s the starting point. Now you said this needs to be communicated. Who needs to communicate that to the leader? Do you think that needs to be the organization or is that your job?

 

Jathan:

The organization.

 

Stephan:

And who in the organization ideally?

 

Jathan:

Well, it would be the CEO, or if the CEO is the problem it would be the Chairman of the Board or the owner.

 

Stephan:

So what I’m hearing, it’s someone with authority. So it can’t be a colleague, probably not the HR

manager unless they’re the direct supervisor of this individual?

 

Jathan:

Yeah. There needs to be leverage, okay? Without leverage… In rare instances, I’ve been able to work an intervention where I didn’t have the leverage, where essentially the client, the employer, the organization said, “Jathan, if this person leaves, we fold our tent. Unfortunately this jerk is necessary to our survival and we’re not ready to pull the plug on our entire organization. Can’t afford it. Maybe we can build to that point, and at some point be able to grow out of where we can get rid of the jerk, but for now everybody loses in the organization.” So in those cases, because I don’t have leverage now, my only shot is to have a conversation with that person and say, “What bugs you about people? What bugs you about the employees that of course complained about this person?”

 

Jathan:

And sometimes what’ll happen is that the toxic leader will describe frustrations, disappointments, people letting him down or letting her down, or frustrating them. Getting in the way of their goals, preventing them, because a lot of these people are driven and they’re result-oriented. And so if we can get a dialogue going, then I can sometimes say, “Well, what if? What if you worked with me, tried some new things outside your comfort zone, and you got more of what you want?” Okay? What if? And then if that continues, you say, “Well, how about we try and experiment? Now let’s be clear. For the time period of this experiment, you’re going to have to make some radical changes in your behavior, but we will closely study the results. We’ll measure the results. And if you’re not getting those results then you tell me to take a hike, and you go back to the way you’ve been that’s made you in your mind the success that you are. So all we’re going to do is do an experiment.”

 

Jathan:

Now that is something I use even in the first category, which is where I have leverage. So in other words,they’ve been sent to me, where’s the principal’s office, right? And they’ve got to work with me because they want to keep their job, all right? They don’t want to lose their stock options. All right, fine. I still give them that talk and say, “You know what? If this is successful, guess what? You’re not just going to keep your job. You’re going to have one of those amazing moments. And by the way,” I’ll say, “Do you have family, spouse, kids, whatever? I’ll make a bet with you. If this is successful in the workplace, you’re going to be reporting some real positive results at home. And if you’re involved in your church or whatever it is, you’re going to see it there too. So my preference is always to have that leverage because it makes that conversation a lot easier. But if the client says, “I can’t do it, not now,” I’m willing to go in, but if the person then blows me off and says, “The hell with you,” then it’s like, “Okay.” Client’s got to make a decision. So that’s why I come back to people that… Other people tend to think they are incorrigible and often aren’t, because that misbehavior is a function of some need that isn’t being met. And if we can get to that need or that need behind the need, we’ve got a shot, we’ve got a chance.

 

Stephan:

So what I’m hearing Jathan, is first of all what works is giving them the two paths, right? “You got path A, path B, you choose.” So in a way you’ve got the leverage, which might feel like an ultimatum, but it’s also giving them the choice. Correct?

 

Jathan:

Absolutely.

 

Stephan:

And then secondly, you’re presenting it as an experiment to try new behavior to get ultimately what they want. So it needs to be in their best interest. So this isn’t, “Hey, you’re not looking out for the organization. You’re not looking out for the people that represent that organization. You’re representing them.” You’re saying, “Look, this could be better for you, because if you’re complaining about these people in these certain ways, there’s something we can do about that. And that would make your life better, wouldn’t it?”

 

Jathan:

Yes. Right.

 

Stephan:

Okay. That’s really, really good. And I think that’s one of the challenges. What we see with clients is they haven’t had that conversation with that leader. There’s conversations happening behind that leader, they’re plotting strategies and trying to figure out how we handle the behaviors that we’re seeing? And they are very apprehensive to have that conversation around, “You know what, there are two paths that you’re going to take. By the way, the third path of status quo ain’t an option.” They’re afraid to make that declaration, and I think part of it is for fear of losing that person or for fear of making it sound like an ultimatum. But what I’m hearing from you is you need to make it. You need to give them that ultimatum, but present it as a choice, “You have choice A or B. You choose.”

 

Jathan:

Yes. It’s always presented as a choice.

 

Stephan:

Now, I think there’s another truism about why this work works, why you’ve been successful as an executive coach. And it’s certain qualities of these leaders; you mentioned that they’re driven, they’re motivated. That works in your favor, true?

 

Jathan:

Yes, absolutely. I mean, that’s the thing. You find their pain point, which is, some human being is getting in the way of their goals, because they’re not smart enough, or they’re not wise enough, or they’re not working hard enough, or they’re not dependable enough, or they’re not this enough or that enough. And I refer to it as the Mama Grizzly factor. Okay? You’re out for that little nature hike in the woods and encounter these adorable bear cubs, but you’re not enjoying it, right? Because what’s going on in your head? “Where’s Mama.” And if Mama sees you in the vicinity of those cubs, Mama has a basic simplistic recognition: When in doubt, in fact not even in doubt, treat it as a threat and remove it.

 

Jathan:

And often a lot of your bullies and your toxic behaviors are rooted in a kind of Mama Grizzly, “You’re threatening my bear cubs,” whether they are or not, “You’re threatening my cubs. Whack.” And so, if I can get the discussion about what we can do to help the cubs grow and thrive and do better and how these people can contribute to that desirable outcome, then we have a chance. We have a shot, we have a shot.

 

Stephan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think there’s an inherent competitiveness too among leaders, to want to

achieve if presented a plan that makes sense and is agreeable to them?

 

Jathan:

Yes. And that’s actually one of the beauties of the Marshall Goldsmith mini survey, okay? For those of you who may not know, but in a Marshall Goldsmith, which is what I use, system-

 

Stephan:

Marshall Goldsmith, to interrupt, it’s a stakeholder centered approach. So yeah, go on. Carry on, explain it?

 

Jathan:

Go ahead, Stephan, if you want to give a little background. But anyway, the point about it is, there are stakeholders; often the person’s direct reports and others. And at the end of a certain period of time, they’re going to get an anonymous third party administered survey. And it’s going to say, “This person’s goal… ” Let’s say for instance, [inaudible 00:17:31], that’s been perceived as a toxic leader. His goal is to lead with trust and respect. That’s what his goal is. Okay? Now, there’s maybe some skepticism with the stakeholders, but we’ve been working at it. A mini survey will come out to those stakeholders, and they’re going to be asked the following question: Not, “How has he been over the last 10 years,” or whatever. It’s, “His goal began on this date. It’s now been X months over this period of time. What progress has she or he made toward that goal?”

 

Jathan:

And the stakeholders will answer that question numerically. If they put down a zero, it means, “Well, he didn’t get better, he didn’t get worse.” If they put down a plus one, it means, “She got better. There’s still room to grow.” A two means, “Wow, she’s done beyond expectations.” And then three, which is the top of the scale, means, “Oh my gosh. This person is the leader of this behavior in the entire organization.” And it goes in reverse: Minus one, “Lost ground,” minus two, “This is very scary,” and minus three, “We got to run for the hills.”

 

Stephan:

In what timeframe?

 

Jathan:

You know, it varies on the engagement. I’ve had it from three months probably the shortest, 12 months more at the other end, and points in between. But usually you agree on that as part of the action plan. And the question really is, if this leader commits to this action plan, commits to this goal, and commits to the specific written behaviors that the person will be laid out and held accountable to and holds themselves accountable to, when should that perception change? So if these five people perceive you, if I’m talking to my coach, as a bully, as a source of fear and intimidation, if we follow this plan, by when, if it’s successful, should that perception have changed?

 

Jathan:

And I generally say, the most ambitious is three months. It can happen. But I also say we might do a survey in three months and if there’s still work to be done, clearly the effort’s being made, we’ll stay with it. If the perception hasn’t changed after six months, then I’ve got real issues as to whether it’s ever going to work. Either because the leader is not truly committed to behavioral change, or because the hole is just so deep it’s impossible to climb out of. Although I’ll say on that last one, that’s an assumption a lot of people make, and it’s almost always wrong. People like to root for a reformed sinner; that’s one of the things these toxic leaders have going for them. So there’s a little reservoir of potential goodness that can get tapped, even among people whose lives have been made miserable by that leader.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. I think a point to add to that, Jathan, is that with the stakeholder approach; the Marshall

Goldsmith approach that you use, you’re not just surveying the stakeholders after say four months or five months of coaching. That’s not the only time that the stakeholder is being asked for their feedback. They’re being consulted every month by that leader, and that leader is saying, “How am I doing? Please give me feedback. How am I doing?” And so that demonstrates, A, that they care, and B, ideally that they’re listening and they’re doing something about it. So that helps, I believe, change perception as well. And that itself is a behavior change that the coachee is undergoing, and so it’s not just a bunch of magic happening behind a closed door between coach and coachee, and suddenly perceptions are going to change, no. That perception is being changed slowly over time through continuous communication and dialogue. Correct?

 

Jathan:

You’re spot on. Absolutely. In fact, the point you make, I think is so critical. This is what I do. I’m going to start an engagement, okay. After I do the 360 assessment, we get together, we work out the goal, we work out the initial behavioral steps, we get the feed forward, all those different terms. We now have a written action plan. Then I say, “Okay, who are the stakeholders? I want their names specifically.” Then I have… And people do it differently. And I do it differently sometimes, but here’s the key: The leader goes to each of those stakeholders… My method is separate one-on-ones, some people do it as a group. But each stakeholder is told, asked actually, to participate, and told that they will be checking in on a 30-day or approximately 30-day basis. Here’s the thing. I say, “If we’re going to work together coach-coachee,” I say, “I want to know the dates that you enrolled each of your stakeholders, and I want to know that you’ve marked your calendar. Because I’m going to mark my calendar too. And approximately 30 days from now I’m going to be asking you, ‘Have you had your stakeholder check-ins?’ And if you haven’t, I’ll be waiting to hear your explanation.”

 

Jathan:

So that’s just an underscore how that is, that I’m not going to let them slide on that. Because you’re right, it is an indispensable element in success. They might get from a zero to a one on their own, but if they’re doing those check-ins, what behavior that would be measured as a one by that stakeholder is probably going to be measured as a two at least, because of the check-in process. So thank you for bringing that up; that is a fundamental point.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. Now I think another significant advantage or benefit to stakeholder coaching, the Marshall

Goldsmith model… And you’ve glossed over it very quickly. You said you interview stakeholders, you come up with a behavior goal, and the example you gave is to treat people with trust and respect, I believe it was, and then you come up with an action plan. So tell me what might be included in the action plan? Describe that for people so they have a better understanding.

 

Jathan:

Okay. Well I’d have to make sure I get the names out, I could almost show you one. So instead I’ll create a visual picture. So picture a document that has a date on it. That’s the date as of which you commit to this plan. And then in the far left column, the title is Goal. That’s the overall goal: Delegate more effectively, lead with trust and respect, handle confrontations constructively. Whatever it is, that’s your goal. We don’t leave it there. Then you move into the next column adjacent to it, which is where you’re going to question yourself every day and mark yourself every day on, “Did I appropriately do the following?” And these will be very specific observable behaviors. An example might be, “Did I solicit others’ opinions before expressing my own?” That would be an example. “Did I give positive recognition to someone for an action idea or contribution they made? Yes or no?” Did you do it? And it could also be referring. “In a conversation, did I confirm with the person their view before expressing mine?” So in other words, these are designed to be observable behaviors. “Did you do it? Did you not do it?” So that the leader can assess themselves, the coach can assess them, I’ll sometimes be a fly on the wall, but also the stakeholders can. Because there’s also this… People have blind spots, we all do. I talk about three realities. There’s the reality of what we perceive we do, there’s the reality of what we do, and they’re often different. And I have brought wry smiles to lots of clients who are, “So what did you just do?” And I say, “Well let me tell you exactly, because I was there,” or even I recorded it. And they’re, “Really?” So you have a gap often between what you perceive you do and what you do. There’s a third one, which is what they perceive, which could also vary from what actually you did and what you perceived you did. And so the coaching engagement, if it’s successful, collapses those three realities. And so those are the things we work at. And going back to what you said, a lot of these difficult people are result-oriented and they’re driven, and that’s a new game. Can we collapse the three realities? “You think you behave in a way that’s wonderful; you behave in a way that’s iffy. That’s the reality. And they perceive you as being a total loss cause jerk. Can we bring those together, maybe closer to what you perceive.” So we now have a goal, and then we have a game plan. And that’s your action.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. And I think that that succinctness of it is very attractive for someone who is results-oriented, driven. It’s not just airy-fairy foofy stuff like, “Okay, how am I supposed to change my behavior? I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do differently.” This gives you a very clear roadmap of what you could be doing differently.

 

Jathan:

Yes.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. I think the Marshall Goldsmith model fits perfectly for these kinds of very challenging behavior changes. If I can summarize or bring back our whole conversation full circle, the original people who come to us, they have challenging leaders. I think you have a very unique skill set having been a lawyer; you’ve dealt with many challenging individuals. But ultimately I think you do have a unique perspective, but you’re really facilitating change through the model of stakeholder coaching. So it’s a process that’s proven, that’s been used thousands of times, and it’s your guide. That’s the thing that’s helping you really produce the change within individuals. Is that fair to say, Jathan? I don’t want to take away from your unique talents and skills as a coach, that framework really helps.

 

Jathan:

Well, I think what it was… I’ve been doing this work in this space as a coach, and then also as an organization development consultant, because I also work with organizations too, where the organization is the client as opposed to the specific person I’m coaching. What Marshall Goldsmith stakeholder centered coaching did for me, was it gave me the perfect vehicle for what I was doing. So whatever success level I was achieving before core principles of stakeholder centered coaching, just moved it up. It’s like a baseball player and you discover a new posture at the plate, and all of a sudden your averages in your slugging percentage and things just start to change. And by the way, I’ll say, also and not just when I’m doing one-on-one coaching, I incorporate Goldsmith principles in all the work I do. All the work I do. I work with HR on converting HR from compliance cop to culture coach. Goldsmith principles are built into that work. I work with C-suites on creating great workplace cultures, Goldsmith principles are built into that work. So it was for me professionally, the rocket fuel.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. And for us as an organization, because we pride ourselves on always making the right connection between the issue or problem that the organization is facing and the right coaching solution, and we draw from a large pool of coaches. We have many coaches with different training and specializations. And we found the exact same thing. We were employing coaches to deal with toxic or abrasive leaders, and the Marshall Goldsmith process seems to just fit it hand to glove. It’s just a great… We found that leveling up with our clients as well. And so we put a lot of faith into it, a lot of trust into it. You still have to have the right coach because in my experience, again, like I said earlier at the beginning of this call, we’ve spoken to hundreds and hundreds of coaches, literally. And I would say most of them wouldn’t touch any of the most challenging cases that we face with a hundred foot pole. Whereas Jathan, you go in there just ready to go, ready to rock, and you embrace it.

 

Jathan:

Well this probably sounds strange, and maybe it suggests I’m strange. I’m sure my wife would agree. Sometimes a big super-ego, whatever leader, often I’ve been brought in after they intimidated the coach that they had. And so they basically manipulated the whole coaching relationship into coaching their narrative. And that’s their way; they subdue. And occasionally that’s tried on me, and I just find it amusing. I just found, “Okay. So you’re going to intimidate me. So that also could be why I was sort of like a coach of the last resort, because you know, “Really? Okay. Okay. Do you know how many people like you I cross-examined, including the ones that ended up bankrupt? But go ahead, go ahead, intimidate me.” So anyway, sorry for that excursion, but it is true. And in fact, by now they usually know about me enough that they don’t even try. But there was a transitional period, and I always just found it amusing.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. Yeah. And that’s not to say you don’t see the possibilities in them, right? You’re not seeing them as a villain, a bad guy or girl? Because I think there’s almost an equal number of women and men leaders who are abrasive and toxic. Maybe you have different data than us, but that’s definitely what we see.

 

Jathan:

I’ve certainly encountered and dealt with women that were abrasive and intimidating, and fear creating. And also that had developed what they thought were necessary; go back to Mama Grizzly. So even when I started an engagement with somebody that I thought was trying to manipulate or intimidate me, I didn’t walk away. I just called it. And I said, “And my sense is, you’re not reserving this behavior for me, that this is a, right, wrong or indifferent, a kind of coping strategy that you’ve developed, where you’re in an uncertain situation and you want to control as many of the variables you can control, and those include the human beings that are around you. So you’re nervous about this coaching engagement and where it might lead, so your default response is to control the coach; do whatever means necessary: Fear, intimidation, deceit, manipulation. You want to control it. So if we’re going to work well together, if we’re successful, you’re going to learn there are other and better ways.” “That in fact, if instead of producing certain behaviors from me that you want because ‘I’m afraid or I’m intimidated or I’m deceived,’ what if you got my genuine desire to help you succeed? What if you commanded not just what you can command, ‘I have to show up at work on time,’ what if you got that discretionary energy you can command. What if when I’m not around you, I’m thinking about ways to help you be successful. What do you think? Now, if I’m afraid of you, am I going to think that? Am I going to be worrying about that? And if I see you headed in a path that’s going to be bad for you, am I going to call that out? But what if I genuinely care about you, and feel you care about me? What changes happen and what results happen?” So I never go into engagement saying, “There’s no way.” And even if they misbehave early in on the process, I don’t immediately pull the plug. I’ll call it, and if necessary I’ll pull the plug, but before then we’re going to have a candid conversation.

 

Stephan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great. So for an individual who has a toxic leadership issue in their organization; they’re looking for coaching, they’re not even sure coaching is going to work. What are your final thoughts? Any last pieces of advice?

 

Jathan:

Yes. It would be this. Let’s say I’m the client. Let’s say I’m the owner; I’m the CEO or whatever. And let’s say you are the prospective coach. In addition to getting a sense of your abilities and your experience, and in addition to having confidence in you as a professional coach, there’s one thing I’m going to want to know from you, which is, if there’s a point where this coaching engagement is feudal or even potentially counterproductive, even if it’s not in your economic interest to end it, you will come to me and you’ll talk to me. And you’ll say, “You know what Jathan? I think we need to maybe pull the plug on this.” I want to know that if in your mind and your heart, that you say, “You know what? This is not healthy and it’s not going in a healthy way. And even though I was engaged for 12 months,” or whatever it is, “I think we need to revisit it.” I just want to know that you’ll do that. That would be-

 

Stephan:

That’s really good.

 

Jathan:

That would be a conversation as the person who’s potentially footing the bill and responsible overall; the sponsor as it’s called. I’d want to know that in a coach. One way is to have that put down on a table and say, “What happens?” Because that’s something I put in because I want the ability to leave. I want the ability to pull the plug, and the fact that it costs me money, so what? No long term. And so that’s something that I want reciprocally. I think sometimes, unfortunately, if you don’t have that conversation and there isn’t that clarity, the coach will continue after a point where a much stronger intervention needs to happen.

 

Stephan:

Yeah. Great point, and a great way to end. Jathan, thank you for your time. Thank you for all your input and your stories. This has been really helpful. And if you’re interested in getting some coaching for anybody in your organization, give Noomii a call. We can put the right coach on the job, and if this leader that you have is one of the most challenging

The Pros & Cons of Involving Stakeholders When Coaching Toxic Leaders

Toxic leadership is often first detected by the organization through stakeholder temperature surveys which thus kick off an investigation into potential solutions. If stakeholders help detect the problem in the first place, why shouldn’t they be involved throughout the intervention to address dysfunctional behavior?

In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of involving stakeholders when coaching toxic leaders.

Pro #1: Involving Stakeholders Requires Changing Perceptions

Victims of abrasive leaders report that relationship strain can persist even when the leader is “on best behavior”. Even when the leader is behaving well, the perception is that the leader may be acting insincere in order to manipulate others. Although they may not express their feelings, victims of toxic leaders will view the leader through a lens of cynicism. 

What a Toxic Leader Does (Even When on “Best Behavior) Versus How It’s Perceived by Their Victims

Actions taken by a toxic leader Perception of victim
Buys victim a coffee What favor is she going to ask of me now?
Complements victim He may have thanked me for completing the report but I bet he’ll give me an earful when he reviews it.
Asks victim for input She asked my opinion but is she really going to do anything about it? I doubt it.

In our experience, changing behavior takes time (many months) and changing perception takes even more time. Therefore, if the organization is going to invest the time and money to alleviate toxicity in the workplace, it’s in their interest to start changing both behavior of the toxic leader and the perception of the toxic leader by stakeholders at the same time.

Of course, this article addresses both the pros and cons of involving stakeholders so you should proceed with caution. 

Also, this article does not explain how to best involve stakeholders when coaching a toxic leader. If you would like to learn more about that, reach out to a Noomii coaching expert to learn more about coaching a toxic leader using a Stakeholder Centered Approach, pioneered by Marshall Goldsmith.

Pro #2: Involving Stakeholders Provides Objective Results

What’s the old philosophical question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a toxic leader changes their behavior and no one is around to evaluate it, does the change really matter?

Although we can intuit that soft skills matter, one of the biggest challenges preventing organizations from investing more heavily in leadership development programs, is clearly and objectively demonstrating the return on investment (ROI) for soft skills development.

When it comes to investing in coaching for a toxic leader, it’s not enough to ask the leader if they’ve reformed. Of course they’ll report positive changes.

You don’t want to ask the coach for their opinion either because it’s going to be biased. Unless the coach is engaging stakeholders, their only perspective will be through the toxic leader. 

Therefore, making it clear to the leader that their progress will be measured by the stakeholders provides a more objective assessment for the organization.

Pro #3: Involving Stakeholders Gives the Leader Practice

You can’t become an expert at anything by simply talking about it. You need to practice.

For toxic leaders who are trying to become better leaders, they need to practice such skills as how to listen, how to treat others with respect, and how to provide feedback in a constructive and caring way. The time the leader spends with the coach will be used to challenge the leader’s beliefs and assumptions which is a great start. But ultimately, the leader needs to work on their soft skills.

In sports, athletes repeat and perfect skills in practice, a low stakes environment, before using them in a game, a high stakes environment. Involving stakeholders in the coaching process, gives the leader a more controlled environment to practice their skills and collect feedback. To help the leader, the coach can model the behavior, facilitate communication with the stakeholders, give the leader specific behavior tasks, and interpret feedback more objectively. 

This doesn’t mean that the coach will do the work for the leader, it just means that the coach can create a safe space for the leader to practice the new skills so that the next time the leader gets into a high stakes “game-like” situation, they can fall back on the skills they’ve practiced.

Summary of Pros

To summarize, the pros of involving stakeholders are that:

  • In addition to changing behaviors of the leader, you change perceptions of the leader
  • Stakeholders provide a more objective measure of the improvements in the leader’s soft skills
  • The leader can practice their skills under the guidance of the coach

Even with all of the stated benefits above, there are potential challenges involving stakeholders in the coaching of a toxic leader. Let’s take a look at them now.

Con #1: Stakeholders May Fear Retaliation From the Leader or the Organization

“Damned if I do. Damned if I don’t.”

One of the first steps that a coach may facilitate when coaching a toxic leader is to enrol stakeholders in providing feedback throughout the process. When asked to do that, the stakeholder may feel trapped between two undesirable outcomes. On one hand, they may feel afraid to provide honest feedback to the leader for fear of retaliation from the leader. On the other hand, they may feel that their job is contingent on providing the feedback. In other words, the stakeholder may feel like they don’t have a choice but to accept the challenge.

Therefore, the challenge for the coach is to navigate the dynamics that exist between the leader, the stakeholders, the sponsor, and the organization as a whole. 

The challenging dynamics can be dealt with but it requires sufficient time and a substantial commitment from all parties to stick to the process.

Con #2: Involving Stakeholders Is Scary for the Leader

It’s one thing to share a goal with a colleague for additional accountability. It’s even more daunting when the person you share your goal with is going to evaluate your progress.

This can be particularly true for an abrasive leader because they are often high-achieving, results-driven people whose identities are closely linked to their reputation. According to Dr Laura Crawshaw, author of Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace, their biggest fear is being perceived as incompetent.

Therefore, when the leader’s organization finally approaches them about their poor conduct, three things usually happen and all of them can be perceived as threats to their competence:

  1. They are told that they are perceived as abrasive
  2. The organization wants to help them by providing them specialized coaching
  3. Stakeholders are going to be involved in the process to assess their progress

Gulp.

The bottom line is that involving stakeholders can be scary for the leader and it is not for the faint of heart. That’s why we’ve written a whole book about how to sell the opportunity of coaching to a toxic leader.

Con #3: Stakeholder Coaching Is a Bigger Investment

As indicated above, successfully involving stakeholders in a coaching engagement for toxic leaders requires a bigger commitment from the organization and the coach. This means more of the good things:

  • Changed perceptions
  • Objective assessment of behavior change
  • Opportunities to practice 

But also more of the challenging things for the leader, coach, stakeholders, and the organization:

  • Time
  • Patience
  • Commitment to the process

And of course, because of the bigger investment, the fees for stakeholder coaching are higher than standard coaching.

Final Thoughts on Involving Stakeholders When Coaching a Toxic Leader

The bottom line is that stakeholder based coaching for toxic leaders is hard work. It’s hard work for the coach. It’s hard work for the leader. And it’s hard work for the stakeholders. That’s no reason to not do it. Nobody said being a world-class leader was easy.

If you are part of an organization that is struggling with toxic or abrasive leadership, reach out to Noomii today to explore the right coaching solutions for your unique situation.

 

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