The old saw is that employees leave bosses, not organizations. But let’s put a finer point on it: Employees leave toxic bosses.
What exactly is a toxic boss? Nobody thinks they are one ... and yet. Ask friends, family and people on the street, and you’ll get plenty of horror stories. That means, despite protestations to the contrary, plenty of these folks are in our midst, which suggests that the first characteristic of a toxic boss is a lack of self-awareness.
The second issue is that the vast majority of problematic behaviors don’t raise giant red flags. Outright abuse exists, of course. But for most companies, it’s a combination of subtle toxic conduct and an attitude of, “Who, me?” that alienates your best workers.
The most common toxic traits are clear to the receiver, not as clear to the sender. Start looking at your managers from the employee perspective versus top-down, and you’ll help your organization avoid decimation by the Great Resignation.
It’s super not intuitive that needing to be liked is toxic. Everybody wants to be liked, right? We all want a likeable boss, right?
True. But only to a point. Here’s where it gets toxic: Not just being likeable, but needing to be liked so much that it gets in the way of doing the right thing.
A manager who needs to be liked will do anything to avoid raising the ire of employees, even going so far as to avoid giving feedback to people who sorely need it. You might not think this is toxic — unless you’re an employee observing peers behaving badly and getting away with it while you toe the line.
To put it plainly, if a worker is exhibiting bad behavior on the job, other folks in the group see it. The boss failing to act because she wants to be liked may be great for the badly-behaving employee — but it’s demoralizing to other team members.
And needing to be liked gets even more toxic when the manager craves flattery.
A boss who surrounds himself with a cadre of toadies because he needs constant adulation will never, ever improve. He can’t see that anything he has done is harmful or learn how to create better outcomes for the team and for himself. This manager takes criticism very badly, then shops that feedback with the throng of admirers that he has gathered by his side.
“Hey, is this valid criticism?” says the flattery-addicted boss.
“Oh, hell no, boss! You’re the best,” say the cadre of flatterers.
“See? I AM AWESOME,” thinks the flattery-addicted boss.
Now, the courageous employee who spoke up gets either ignored (toxic) or retaliation from the bad boss and his posse (super toxic).
If all you hear from your employees is flattery, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Ask for constructive, kind, critical feedback from direct reports. Teach them by your actions that there will be no reprisals and they will not be ignored. Thank folks for having the courage to speak up. Close the loop on any feedback, and show that you take it seriously by explaining what you’ve done to address the problem.
Many times, a flattery-addicted leader is also conflict-avoidant. After all, dealing with disputes might make people mad at you. But the thing about avoiding conflict is that problems rarely get better with time. They get worse, or people solve the situation by walking away.
Hold managers responsible for identifying conflicts in their early stages and dealing with them promptly.
Let’s say that customer service scores are terrible, and that team leader reports to the COO.
Choice #1: Have a hard conversation with the customer service supervisor, keep that balance between curiosity and accountability, and figure out what the problems are.
Choice #2: Whistle past the supervisor’s cubicle and assume it’ll get better.
By choosing #2, the COO is abdicating leadership responsibility. As good reps see bad behavior tolerated, the problems will get worse and therefore harder to solve. Plus, the leader is not doing her job in this case. The CEO may or may not notice. But both customers and peers will assuredly notice and take action. Maybe that action is customer churn. Maybe it’s employee turnover.
Whatever the case, this toxic behavior will have negative consequences.
One of the most common ways bosses avoid conflict is by skipping employee check-ins or reviews. The consequence is that the left hand ends up not knowing what the right is doing. The boss is unable to solve simple problems before they escalate, and good employees feel like the boss doesn’t care. They’re not entirely wrong.
Given the consequences, why do leaders avoid conflict?
Sometimes managers assume that conflict resolution conversations — with peers, with employees, with customers, with suppliers — must be brutal, the kind of fight that bruises and batters. The kind that nobody wins. Yes, there are folks who relish that, but most of us don’t.
Coach managers that conflict resolution or accountability conversations don’t need to be painful. Role-play conflict resolution conversations that are respectful and kind and acknowledge that there is a problem that you must solve as a team. These conversations are hard and benefit from practice with a trusted peer.
The best kind of conflict resolution conversations separate the person from the problem, vigorously attacking the issue while respecting the employee and the relationship. Those are the kinds of conflicts that get solved in a win-win way. Exactly nothing gets solved when you ignore disputes.
Conflict definitely doesn’t get solved when a manager assumes she knows all the answers and doesn’t need to ask clarifying questions.
A boss that hands down edicts without gathering information? Super toxic.
Your managers may think they ask questions, and maybe they do. But check: Are they fond of the assumptive close? This is a scenario from the sales world that goes kind of like this:
“Hey Susan, I was wondering if you want to order the green or the blue Honda?”, as if Susan had already made up her mind that she was going to buy from this salesperson. Most of us would rather hear, “Have you made up your mind about a Honda?”
As annoying as the assumptive close is during a sales process, it’s even more annoying when you’re an employee interacting with your manager.
The assumptive close manifests through statements rather than clarifying questions. Phrases like, “I hope you’re happy here,” instead of “Are you happy here?” are assumptive closes. During a review or accountability conversation, managers need to ask, as in, “What happened with you and the engineering department last week?” versus tell, as in “I heard you really irritated the folks in engineering last week.”
How about an employee who hears, “Because we didn’t make our numbers, we need to cancel the monthly team lunch” when she darn well knows that she did make her numbers, plus some, and it was a peer slacking off that tanked the entire team.
Can you say super toxic and super frustrating?
I’m not saying walk on eggshells with employees — that’s avoiding conflict. I am saying insist that people managers be intentional, mindful and curious when they speak to employees. How would you want to be spoken to? Would you prefer the benefit of the doubt? Would you want to be asked instead of told?
My recommendation is to work to spot leaders who need coaching now — and to get feedback on your own style — before the Great Resignation includes your best employees.
An employee well-being survey can be a great starting point. Survey employees anonymously, and again, circle back with employees to show them honestly how things are going. When you and your leadership team make a plan to address any dissatisfaction, be transparent about what you will do and when you will do it. Brainstorm with your team about what else you can do: maybe an unstructured “listening tour” in which a leader of a different team visits with the individual team members. One exercise I have done very successfully is asking folks, “What would make you excited to get up in the morning to go to work?” You may be surprised at the simple, easy, quickly-implementable answers.
One of your hiring managers may suggest that it’s too demoralizing to the leadership team to survey employees. Push back. First of all, the hiring manager who doesn’t want to survey is probably conflict-avoidant and the one who most needs the data.
Second, as a leader or leader of leaders, you need to know precisely how good or bad employees think they have it. If you don’t know what’s wrong, how can you fix it? You’ll see the resignations whether or not you see the early warning signs. Fixing what’s wrong is worth more than one leader’s delicate feelings. Plus, if things are good, don’t you want to celebrate that?
In a talent-buyer’s market, your best employees are your biggest flight risks. However, your best employees are also more than willing to stay with a boss they respect and, yes, like. The question is, is your company willing to do the work to make sure all its leaders are that boss?