Toxic leadership kills your workforce & Profit!
I have to warn you… this is a genuine heartfelt rant about the bad leadership which poisons our workplaces today. I need to get this off my chest!
As some of you know, I’ve recently been speaking to many people about what causes them the most stress. The common themes seem to be bad managers and toxic work environments, amongst other things. This begs the question – is there an epidemic of bad managers out there? Are people actually leaving their managers when they quit their job, as so many articles suggest? Or, are they leaving the company that allows the toxic environment, and therefore bad managers, to thrive? I think it’s down to the senior leadership of each company.
Once senior leaders recognise that a healthy company culture results in happy, productive employees who contribute to a healthy revenue stream, things can hopefully change. However, there are very few companies out there that have recognised the value of happy employees. More companies must lead by example and demonstrate the benefits of providing a positive environment where their people can thrive.
Company culture starts at the top. Although employee wellness and mental awareness is talked about en masse today, I still don’t see much evidence of companies incorporating changes that will make a lasting, positive effect on their workforce. Too many companies still foster cultures that are toxic, and we need to look at how this toxic culture makes people ill.
Oftentimes, it begins with conflict at the senior level – a power struggle that causes loyalty issues, gossiping, backstabbing, mobbing and a very unhappy workforce that trickles all the way down to the bottom.
In the tech sector, a start-up with a new idea or product can just be in the right place at the right time, to get funding. Often, it’s sheer luck and timing, not a genius idea or ground-breaking technology that is behind the success. The start-up could be founded by mediocre-to-reasonably-good people with little or no corporate experience. They then suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by the growth of their start-up and feel the need to hire lots of people. Over time, the company is bought out, goes to IPO, or stays a medium-sized business. We all know the drill, but a lot of things can go wrong during that process, especially when it comes to leadership and company culture. You don’t make employees happy long-term by providing free beer and pizza. Well, not if you are past a certain age and you can see past the frosty beer glass.
I believe the biggest issue in the growth process is that sometimes the founding team doesn’t hire very talented people to help them with company growth. There are a number of reasons for that. Honestly, there just aren’t many really good employees on the market who can deliver more than just hot air. The best people are like gold-dust, and are either cherished by their current employer, or have been so whittled down they no longer see their worth. I know this from my own experience of trying to hire people who are made for the start-up world. Sometimes senior leaders may just fear that they’ll lose control over their start-up and their initial product idea if they hire someone who is more experienced than they are -this is when the toxic culture is born. It has a lot to do with the fragile ego and the inexperience of the founding team.
In large companies that are more than two decades old, there is a slightly different scenario. People hide in their departments in a job that they got through some connection and not because of their skillset or experience. They somehow manage to have no accountability and just move from department to department, getting away with doing nothing, whilst their salary steadily increases. When somebody starts questioning their job or leadership, these employees get defensive and pull out all their corporate-politic moves to stay safe. I sometimes wish I was more political and could beat them at their game, but I just can’t. It’s not my style.
A good leader surrounds themselves with people that are better than they are. Some company owners and senior leaders are insecure and hire people they can control. The next in line has the same hiring attitude and hires people even less qualified for the job. And, if they are lucky to hire someone who’s really good in what they do, they micromanage them to keep them under control. They don’t let them grow to their full potential. They don’t let them have their voice. They’d rather create a herd of unhappy lemmings - fit in or get out.
The more people I speak with, the more I hear people say: “My industry is full of sh*t.” This may sound a little extreme, but maybe this is how you see your environment once the rose-tinted glasses have worn off?
I was lucky to have met some truly amazing and inspiring people in tech, some of whom I can call my closest friends now. Some of the people I have met do a great job, are exceptional leaders or individual contributors, and also entrepreneurs. They are passionate and true experts in their field, taking the BS out of Ad Tech and Media. However, I have also come across my fair share of incompetent people who, in leadership positions, can’t even set up a meeting that includes an agenda. Or, they dump so much work on their direct reports that those people barely have time to realise that they are being mobbed. Sometimes, for reasons that are beyond my comprehension, the “thinkers” (who don’t actually contribute anything) get promoted without proving any value.
Competent people are being overlooked, incompetent people are being promoted. This even happens at companies that claim to hire the best of the best people. I have worked for one of those companies and was shocked at the amount of incompetent people who have managed to climb up the corporate ladder, hanging on to their positions through a leadership of fear, and leaving some very smart people behind who hope not to get managed out and lose their jobs.
How have these toxic leaders come so far? Why are they allowed to run whole divisions again and again, when in reality they have never actually delivered results? Where are the managers who lead by example and inspire their teams? Instead, many teams are managed by fear so that the toxic manager can keep their control. Those who want to speak up or report bad behaviour (including sexual harassment) to HR are being shut down quietly. There’s also the prospect of slowly being left out of important meetings and the threat of bad performance reviews. They are done so cleverly that you can never really prove that they are being used to get rid of you legally and quietly. It is only because you have figured those toxic leaders out and you are a danger to them, since you may expose them for who they really are. Or, quite frankly, HR tells you that if you are going ahead with reporting someone, your position within the company could be “severely affected” by it. Sadly, I’m not making these examples up.
It makes me angry because there are so many other things that people get stressed about. Everyday life is hectic enough. And now, on top of all your daily stresses, you have a really bad manager or toxic company culture that may eventually push you over the edge.
There are still so many good people out there who care about what they do. All is not lost. I ask you, the good guys who mean well, to take responsibility and create more awareness. If you notice any of the aforementioned behaviours or signs, do something. Yes, you risk being shut down, but awake your inner rebel and speak up.
I really want companies to take a good hard look at themselves and take responsibility for their employees’ health and wellbeing. Review your company structure, your processes, and how you hold every member of staff equally accountable. And do not forget – not everyone is meant to run a team. Allow for other paths of promotion that don’t involve managing. And if you don’t feel a calling to be a leader or a manger, I would urge you not to be a manager at all, but to be an individual contributor and make the best of that. Or, ask to get good manager training and learn when to lead, manage or coach. Don’t hold other people back because you were promoted into a job you don’t want, or because of your insecurities. As a company, fix your culture and not only will your employees be loyal and productive, but your revenue will increase too. And please, review those exit interviews!
Be better than this.
(This article has also been published on Thrive Global)