Toxic Leaders and Readiness for Change

By Morag Barrett on October 24, 2017

In some ways having a toxic leader can spur positive action. It’s a shame, but often bad behavior has to get really bad before anyone is motivated to speak up.Trauma often opens doors. Sometimes a situation has to deteriorate before people shout “Enough!” By the time HR, the executive board, the senior team and employees start using the “toxic” label, conflicts likely abound throughout the organization.

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

Fear and urgency are often good motivators, prompting leaders and followers to face facts and do something. But where should we start, once we’ve decided enough is enough? How do people working in a toxic environment take the first step?

In my book Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships I share that, “Relationships are built, or destroyed, one conversation at a time.” The language that we both think and speak to describe our colleagues has a huge impact in relationship health.

When we are partnering with an organization or team to introduce the Cultivating Winning Relationships workshop and concepts I’ll listen for roadblocks and obstacles to readiness. I want to determine:
Where are the openings for change? In which areas can there be a possible shift from negative to positive? In spite of everything that’s wrong, where are they experiencing success?

When I’m working in a toxic workplace, I usually try to identify potential areas for success, shifting everyone’s language and thinking from deficits to opportunities. Providing a common language and framework that support Ally behaviors and relationships.

This is simple to do, at least initially. It’s a matter of getting agreement from all stakeholders to change how they phrase things.The difficulty is to get those involved to sustain positive language and that only happens when they shift their attention to overarching common goals and benefits. People have to agree to stop blaming and start aiming for positive action. The more toxic the workplace environment, the harder it is for people to step out of the quicksand of negativity.

In my next post, I’ll suggest steps for a toxicity correction plan. In the meantime, if you’d like to see what can be done in your organization to prevent toxicity from taking hold, contact me.
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