Toxic Employees—Does Your Team Need a Cleanse?

The president of a company engaged me to help him understand what appeared to be an ongoing conflict between two of his key employees. A year earlier, the president had hired his “dream team”—a group of individuals whom he believed could change the face of the company in the marketplace. Each of these hires had been very successful previously and, on paper, had all the credentials needed to make the company a standout and move it ahead of the competition. But that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that two members of the “dream team” became embroiled in bitter disputes that involved manipulation, back-biting, self-righteousness, over-confidence, intimidation, unrealistic certainty of their position, and more. Neither of the employees in question had behaviors that rose to the level of termination, and both had levels of productivity and quality of work that were exemplary. Their contentious relationship was only a distraction at first, but it began to involve others in choosing sides and creating divisiveness on the team. The president recognized that something had to be done.

Toxic Workers

The conflict the president was witnessing is associated with behaviors of “toxic” employees. Toxic employees are ultimately quite harmful to an organization because their undermining, unethical, or questionable behaviors can spread to other employees. However, the complexity in dealing with toxic employees is that they are often high performers. In fact, according to recent research, compared with the average employee, the toxic employee is often more productive as well as more likely to better follow processes, rules, and procedures, often with rigid adherence. Although these employees’ behaviors may be incredibly disruptive, their ability to be productive—and appear (to management) to be acting in the best interest of the company—keeps them employed. It is only when enough damage has been done and the complaints from other employees reach a fevered pitch that management is forced to take action.

Characteristics of Toxicity

According to the research, the toxic employee is characterized by three major traits:

  1. Over-confidence: Toxic employees appear to have supreme confidence and the sense that there is nothing they can’t accomplish. Over time, not having a sense of limits or boundaries can cause them to engage in behaviors that may verge on misconduct.
  2. Self-regarding: Toxic employees consistently put their interests or functions above those of their colleagues. They demonstrate arrogant behaviors that suggest their approach is the only right one, and that they will prevail at all costs. They will not demonstrate any collaborative or supportive behaviors with their colleagues. In this sense, they exhibit a low level of emotional sensitivity, similar to both narcissists and psychopaths.
  3. Rule-follower: Toxic employees will regularly insist that their adherence to the rules of the organization is the foundation for their differences with others. They may claim that rules should not be broken and will steadfastly follow them whenever it suits their purposes. Interestingly, these same ostensible rule-followers are more likely to be terminated for actually breaking the rules.

Toxic Effects

Because toxic employees are usually productive, many of their behaviors are likely to be overlooked or accepted as the price of having a “diva” on the team. This rationale can also be used to discount the early warning signs reported by their disgruntled coworkers. The clever toxic employee can even make others feel responsible for conflicts that the toxic worker has initiated. They are the kind of people who blame others for having a white carpet if they spill red wine on it!

As if having toxic employees were not bad enough, the situation is often exacerbated by their ability to “recruit” others to follow in their footsteps. Their intimidation, persuasiveness, and convincing sense of being right have the effect of causing others to fall in line. This becomes a vicious cycle, whereby toxic individuals and their followers reinforce detrimental behaviors and compete increasingly with others in the organization! Another downside is that those having close, regular contact with toxic employees have a higher chance of being compromised and terminated themselves, compared with those who work with non-toxic employees.


What is the best solution for managing and dealing with a toxic employee? If you identify a toxic employee in your workplace, your best strategy is to take the high road. The odds of turning a toxic employee into a good employee are low, at best. In fact, a company is better off replacing a toxic employee with an average employee than spending time and energy trying to transform the toxic one. Of course, prevention is the best solution. Note the predictors and traits of toxicity discussed above and do not hire candidates who display these traits. If your team needs a cleanse, as with the president and his two problem employees discussed earlier, a manager should bring the team together to remind them of their shared goals. By re-establishing the vision for the team, managers can bolster the productivity and morale of employees, while also maintaining the effectiveness and credibility of management, thereby decisively counteracting any harmful behaviors.

Beware the Charming Psychopath

Once again, Bob told our manager that he would be willing to take on the largest and highest-profile project in the business. Pleased with the eagerness of our coworker to volunteer, our manager smiled and gave him a thumbs-up at his initiative. But the rest of us on Bob’s team shuddered inside. When our coworker committed to the project, he was essentially committing the rest of us, because he was not about to lift a finger to get the project to completion. We knew that working with Bob meant we would be cajoled, conned, manipulated, shamed, and otherwise maneuvered into doing tasks none of us had signed up for. We also knew that, upon successful completion of the project, Bob would take all the credit.

At first glance, an outsider would wonder why we did not have the chutzpah to stand up to Bob, walk away, tell our manager, or choose to take any number of other actions that would circumvent the inevitable problems ahead. In hindsight, we would have those same thoughts. How is it that a coworker, and an equal on the organizational chart, can get away with doing so little work and still get so much credit?

Psychopaths in the Workplace

Employees with personality traits like Bob’s are known as “high-functioning psychopaths.” Although Bob’s behavior is characterized by traits of psychopathy, they are not to the degree of individuals who are institutionalized perpetrators of crime and punishment. Instead, high-functioning psychopaths are driven individuals whose success is often at the expense of others and who display the following types of behaviors:

  • Consistent and persistent manipulation of others, especially those who get in their way.
  • Masterful deception (exaggerating or outright lying) to get their way.
  • Crafty deflections (distractions or half-truths) when confronted about their behavior.

With regard to accountability, charming psychopaths can be so slippery that pinning them down is like “nailing jello to a wall.” You often sense that something is wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on what it is. The truth is that employees like Bob can be extremely charming and personable at the same time they are being ruthless and vindictive. Charming psychopaths are particularly good at managing up, and those higher in the ranks of the organization somehow miss seeing the underlying—and undermining—behaviors.

Psychopathic Behavior

Unlike many personality disorders that are rooted in anxiety, the psychopath has difficulty feeling at all. They crave power and control over people. The hallmark of the psychopath is an inability to experience remorse or empathy. Often, they themselves have no feelings at all. In this regard, the only relationships the psychopath is able to sustain are those that narcissistically serve his/her own interests. These relationships involve a truly sadomasochistic dynamic, in which the recipient of the psychopath’s behavior tolerates the abuse and manipulation that the psychopath dishes out. However, even these relationships tend to be short-lived.

In contrast to the anxiety normal humans feel under pressure, psychopaths become fearless and more focused on their target or goal. The psychopath has an uncanny ability to read people and exploit their vulnerabilities. Hence, in the workplace, the psychopath is able to identify the most vulnerable of coworkers and exploit them to his/her end. They are guiltless, callous, self-centered, and can be superficially charming. Because of their unbridled confidence, they can be very attractive, initially, with their charm and stories of success. They can have the very characteristics that can appeal to executives in management, who can confuse their superficial charm as charismatic leadership. In fact, it is not unusual to see high-functioning psychopaths in the highest levels of an organization. Their focus and ability to get things done, even nefariously, can serve them well.

How Corporate Psychopaths Work

In our example of Bob volunteering himself and, by default, his coworkers to take on a very important, high-profile project, we see Bob’s craft at work at a high level. Although Bob may attend an initial meeting aimed at organizing the project, do not expect him to leave that meeting with any meaningful responsibilities, if any at all. As a master of deflection, he may say things like, “Mary would be great to handle those details,” or “Those issues fall right into John’s skillset.” In these unwanted, unsolicited, and unauthorized delegations of duty are implied compliments to his coworkers, making them difficult to oppose, especially publicly. Initially, Bob’s employees were taken off-guard by his charm until later, when it was too late and they realized they had been duped. When requested to take on any responsibilities himself, Bob will have any number of reasonable-sounding excuses to decline. However, he will want to be at the progress meetings with the manager and may even facilitate those meetings to make certain he appears to be in charge and receives the credit.

Behind the scenes, Bob is constantly “stirring the pot” and creating dissension among team members, knowing that his lack of involvement will be overlooked in the midst of the dramas and conflicts he instigates. By creating confusion, Bob provides himself assurance that, if the project should fail, he has the team’s dysfunction to blame.

Three Ways to Deal

How do you deal with this kind of personality in the workplace? Keep in mind that the chances of psychopaths changing their behavior is nil! Corporate psychopaths have an entrenched personality style that allows them to incredibly adept at maneuvering and counter-maneuvering for self-serving purposes. So when you encounter high-functioning psychopaths, keep these tips in mind.

1. Distance Yourself

You do not want to be another body left in their destructive wake. As soon as you are able to identify any high-functioning psychopath (the sooner the better), work to distance yourself. You do not want to be on the same team or affiliated with them on any project. Decline opportunities to work together as politely as possible. If the psychopath is your manager, very quickly find another part of the organization in which to work—or another job!

2. Watch Your Back

Workplace psychopaths can be ruthless and have no trouble bending the truth or outright lying. Which is why confronting them comes with great risk. Remember, they are at their best at times when normal people are anxious and fearful. Confronting them will not lead to any changes in their behavior; and once confronted, they will actively set out to destroy you to coworkers, your manager, or anyone else who will listen to them.

3. Depersonalize

The greatest weapon that a psychopath has is to manipulate you in a way that makes you doubt the way you think about yourself, rendering you more vulnerable to his/her maneuvering. Remember that psychopaths’ behavior is about them, not about you, and do not take their compliments to heart any more than you take their condemnation to heart. You are no better or worse than when you first met them, and you are hopefully more aware. Do not lose a sense of who you are in working with them.

The bottom line is two-fold: first, you cannot change the behavior of high-functioning psychopaths; and second, you do not want to change your own behavior in response to theirs. Be aware, be on guard, and be yourself.

Hard Conversations? Just Do It!

Recently, a client called me to ask for my counsel regarding an upcoming performance discussion with one of his subordinates. He told me about the individual’s declining performance, including several instances of the employee failing to deliver on agreed-upon projects. The employee was contrite and apologetic, but his performance had not improved. In addition, the employee had experienced some personal problems over the past year, for which my client had made several allowances. It was clear that my client had delayed the discussion for some time and could delay no more. The time had come for a direct and unambiguous performance discussion.

My client expressed significant apprehension about having the discussion and asked my advice on how to handle the meeting.  Violations of company policy or ethical standards are easier to address because they are cut and dried. However, discussions about performance issues are not always as clear-cut. Such issues tend to be more about the behaviors of employees, which are more difficult to discuss because they may cause employees to feel defensive, embarrassed, or nervous.

My experience is that when leaders have faced difficult personnel decisions, they never say, “I wish I would have waited longer before taking action.” Quite the contrary! They always say, “I wish I would have taken action sooner.” The effects of waiting to take some kind of corrective action include loss of time and productivity. More important, leaders who are slow to address performance issues risk demonstrating a lack of credibility and confidence to subordinates and colleagues.

Why do managers consistently delay the timing and directness of difficult performance conversations? The major reason they procrastinate is a lack of self-confidence. They are uncomfortable having potentially tense and contentious discussions in which they do not feel in control of the outcome. In addition, I see leaders delay having these discussions because they want so much to be liked and admired that they would rather be taken advantage of than risk hurting someone’s feelings. The greatest error leaders can make is to lose sight that such conversations need to be unemotional reviews of the facts of the individual’s performance, not emotional displays of feelings.

There are three things managers need to keep in mind before having difficult performance discussions with their employees:

1: Data. Come to the meeting prepared with clear data about the individual’s performance. To have a productive performance discussion, it is critical for managers to have provided clear expectations for work behavior and responsibilities (including quality, quantity, and timeliness of efforts), as well as to have documented instances when expected behaviors or deliverables were not met.

2: Focus. Have a clear agenda about what you are going to discuss, and stick to it. Because the meeting will be based on facts and not opinions, the tone of the meeting should be professional and any degree of emotion should be minimal. The manager can always respond to difficult retorts by the subordinate by staying calm and guiding the discussion back to the facts at hand.

3: Plan. Prior to the meeting, decide with clarity what changes are required, what the expected outcomes should be, and by when you expect to see improvements. In meetings of such importance, it is unfair and unprofessional to make it up as you go. If the manager does not have a plan, including the consequences for failing to meet expectations, the outcome of the meeting will be sub-optimal. A less-than-good outcome is not beneficial for either the individual or the organization.

The key to having difficult performance discussions is preparation, along with a commitment to keeping the conversations factual, focused, and outcome-oriented. My client took this advice to heart and went into the meeting prepared with the facts, an agenda that he followed, and an outcome in mind. He kept the meeting factual and non-emotional; and though the discussion was not an easy one, the client and his subordinate left the meeting with a clear and unambiguous plan. Furthermore, it was agreed that if the subordinate followed the plan, he would be successful, but that if he wasn’t able to follow the plan, he would be either reassigned or terminated. As is often the case, my client’s post-meeting evaluation was, “I should have had this meeting a long time ago!”

The next time you are faced with having a difficult conversation, make sure to plan ahead, have data to support your positions, keep the discussion focused, and go into the meeting with an idea of the desired outcome. Being prepared will make these interactions more productive, and you will waste less time and energy worrying beforehand.

Managing the Passive-Aggressive Employee

We all know passive-aggressive employees. They are consistently late—for meetings, with assignments, even for social engagements—and tend to procrastinate and “forget” to complete a task or deadline. They may even be so bold as to ask their manager to send them reminders to get something done. Now that is audacity! No matter what “tricks” are put in place to manage their passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., scheduling them to arrive 30 minutes early, telling them a deadline is due two weeks before the actual due date, etc.), any possible gains they make quickly erode and they revert to their former ways. In addition, passive-aggressive employees can be characterized as being closed to new ideas and stubbornly holding onto their own point of view, even in the presence of data to the contrary. They may play clueless instead of defending their point of view, but the closed-mindedness remains. These manipulative patterns of behavior can also pervade their personal lives. It is only when these individuals offer benefits that far outweigh their liabilities that managers, employees, and friends tolerate—and adjust to or excuse—the disrespectful or manipulative behavior.

Passive-aggressive employees always have a reasonable excuse for being tardy (when they offer one at all)—the traffic was heavy, they had a physical problem, the dog ate their assignment, their computer went down, and so on. When decisions are made in their absence because the decision could not wait, they often show emotions ranging from disappointment to sullenness or rage that their input was not solicited. Managers joke that these folks will be “late to their own funeral.” Although these laggards may be the target of our light-hearted joking, over time, their consistent and ongoing tardiness, stubbornness, and sense of entitlement can result in lost productivity, loss of team unity, lower team morale, frustration, and resentment from managers and coworkers. These employees may be agreeable, apologetic, and possibly remorseful when challenged about their behavior; however, when confronted, they can also become defensive and even seem to be insulted!

The only reason passive-aggressive employees advance in companies, and in life, is because they are smart, talented, or effectively manipulative. To succeed in the face of often fierce opposition is itself a talent! A hair stylist I know is routinely 30 to 60 minutes late for her clients, but they tolerate her tardiness because she does a good job. Her clients have adjusted their behavior as a means of dealing with her tardiness—but this only serves to reinforce the hair stylist’s passive-aggressive behavior!

Passive-aggressive employees often are unable to change their behavior because it is rooted in anger, deep hostility, and wariness. Their passive aggression represents an inability to express frustration or anger in constructive or direct ways, and a lack of maturity, disrespect, and concern for other people’s feelings. These employees have somehow missed a crucial part of socialization that has to do with the development of empathy, intimacy, and collaboration. Instead, they have successfully been able to get others to conform to their way of conducting themselves, and therefore have little incentive to change. Psychologically, these individuals have never learned to express their hostility in a direct and constructive manner. In fact, they may assert that nothing is wrong and that they are simply disorganized or absent-minded. They will rarely take serious responsibility for their shortcomings or the discomfort and frustration it causes others.

So what is a manager to do? Dealing with passive-aggressive employees is especially difficult because it is unlikely these employees will truly change their behavior. In larger companies, these are the employees who may have gotten “passed around” because of the frustration previous managers have had with them. But there are effective ways to manage passive-aggressive employees.

  1. Establish Individual Contributor Roles: Passive-aggressive employees are not good team players. In fact, they can negatively impact the function and morale of a team. To the extent possible, put passive-aggressive employees into an individual contributor role, in which the work they do is independent of others relying on them.
  2. Set Clear Boundaries: It is critical to set clear boundaries with passive-aggressive employees in terms of expectations, quantity, quality, and timeliness of work. Equally critical is for you to be consistent with your expectations and not waver in the face of seemingly good excuses. The less consistent you are with your expectations and the subsequent consequences, the more likely the negative behavior will continue.
  3. Schedule Regular Performance Meetings: With passive-aggressive employees, reviewing clear and documented assignments in regularly scheduled meetings (at least weekly) is critical to determining whether these employees are completing their assignments. During these meetings you can demonstrate both positive regard for work done as expected and specific feedback where modifications are necessary. Be vigilant against manipulation and in your resolve and expectations.
  4. Manage Emotions: Because passive-aggressive employees have not learned how to express anger or frustration appropriately, encourage them to discuss their feelings when things are not going well. You are not their therapist, of course, but giving them the opportunity to talk about what is really behind their behavior can help create a new paradigm for relating to issues that affect their performance.
  5. Manage Decisively: When old patterns of passive aggression emerge, act quickly and decisively to deal with them. Putting passive-aggressive employees on a performance improvement plan or redeploying them in the face of opposition are wise and sometimes necessary options. Similarly, when new and positive behaviors emerge, being quick to recognize them and reward individuals for their success will reinforce new patterns and ways to move forward.

The Founder’s Dilemma: Moving from Entrepreneur to Professional Manager

A client recently engaged me to help her with problems she was having in her business. Her small, ten-year-old, privately-held company was reaching a tipping point. The company had a strong client list with a decent backlog of business. She had good people working for her, and the upside was significant. What was the problem then?

The founder was beginning to experience what all successful founders do ultimately—the limits of being able to run the business by themselves. Like most entrepreneurs, she had built her organization opportunistically, based initially on survival, and then based on sustaining survival. She was wearing multiple hats, including finding new customers, managing inventory and quality, hiring and firing—plus keeping an eye on cash flow. She found herself on a treadmill with employees to manage, overhead to meet, and a feeling that she needed to both manage operations and “feed the beast” through ongoing business development. She was a tired and frustrated victim of her own success. The irony was that she had everything she dreamed of and yet had come to resent it. Her predicament added credence to the idea of “be careful what you pray for.”

Upon initial assessment of the business, primarily through employee interviews and observations in key business meetings, the solution was clear. The founder needed to fundamentally change the paradigm of how she ran her organization. The company needed to evolve from one in which she controlled all of the pieces to one in which the business would become professionally managed. The implications all sounded logical and made sense to her; however, the reality was fraught with difficulties that started with the founder’s reluctance to give up control.

By necessity, entrepreneurs view their businesses as “their baby.” They have “birthed” the business, nurtured and fed it, and helped it move from crawling to standing and walking. Like any parent, they are very proud as they see their fledgling business move past a point of surviving to the point of thriving. It would be impossible to hire anyone who would know the nuances and history of a business better than the founders.

The growth of the business is usually a product of the founder’s persistence, instinct, and cunning. The way of conducting business is mostly in the head of the founder. It is common for there to be a paucity of documented processes or procedures that others can follow. Deals may be cut with customers that are haphazard and “spur of the moment,” with more of an opportunistic and short-term approach than one that is more strategic and intentional. Hires are typically made out of extreme necessity; roles, responsibilities, and job duties are poorly defined, if at all. Employees tend to gravitate to what needs to be done now, using the particular skills they already possess rather than what is good for the business long-term.

Once a business reaches a “critical mass” that moves it from surviving to thriving, the founder then faces the consequences of their short-term planning. With the absence of repeatable processes, multiple people are involved in decision-making and tend to overlap or “run into” one another. The potential for customers to experience this internal confusion can be catastrophic, with potential quality lapses, inventory shortages or overages, and missed deadlines. This is where my client was. A thriving business can risk “the wheels coming off” if some drastic steps toward professional management are not taken.

It is human nature not to want to change until there is a compelling need to do so, a point at which the pain of the situation exceeds the benefits. Even with a recognition that change is required, founders have great difficulty relinquishing control and trusting others to help in the process of “caring for their baby.”  This is the typical dilemma of entrepreneurs: stay small and continue to manage it themselves, or grow larger and trust others to help in the process.

The thriving business structure needs to move eventually from everyone on the staff being generalists and managing multiple tasks to having specialists. This requires looking at the structure of the organization and determining where specialists will truly add value. Because of the way entrepreneurs have created and grown the business, they tend to be micromanagers. The fear of others “screwing-up” the business, over-spending, hurting customer relationships, not managing operations tightly enough, and, especially, not doing things the way the entrepreneur has done them keeps these founders from hiring strategically and trusting people to do their jobs.

In order for businesses at this inflection point to become more professionally managed, they need to move:


  • Opportunistic growth
  • Centralized decision making
  • Staff wearing multiple hats
  • Loose and changing roles
  • Haphazard delegation
  • Processes ad hoc & changing
  • Opportunistic decision-making
  • Low accountability

  • Intentional and targeted growth
  • Broader decision-making
  • Having greater specialization
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Delegation and empowerment
  • Consistent processes
  • Strategic decision-making
  • Measurement and Accountability


Needless to say, this takes a significant leap of faith on the part of the founder. To be certain, there are inevitable fits and starts in changing one’s business to being more professionally managed. At times, there will be “bad” hires. Customers may not want to change their relationship with the founder to a relationship with a senior business development professional. Suppliers that have become friends of the founder may find their prices or quality undercut by a competitor, causing distress for the founder. Favorite employees of the founder may be found to have been lacking in their performance. The chances for missteps are clearly present. In addition, the founders may see each bump in the road of transition as confirmation that they would have been better off to have stayed the course and never to have moved to a more professionally managed organization.

The biggest challenge is for the founders to redefine their roles and move from tactical “doers” to more professional leaders, learn how to delegate and keep their focus at a higher and more strategic level. This allows them to look out for the future of the business and leave the managing of the current business to their staff. As always, a “trust but verify” posture is prudent, but it cannot be one of micromanaging, criticizing, or not giving people the opportunity to grow.

Unfortunately, the risk of making changes often keeps founders from making them. They start down the path, only to retract and become once again over-involved in the business. As my client understood that to grow her business she would fundamentally need to change the way she thought about the company and her new role, she was met by feelings of both excitement and fear. She was determined to grow her business and choose the path of making the changes. Fortunately for her, she had the courage to make the changes to keep growing and the tenacity to stick with her plan.

Working with a Reluctant Boss

It is a strange yet frequent phenomenon to find individuals in management whose performance suggests they don’t want to be in a managerial role. Their behaviors indicate they aren’t comfortable supervising, or even interacting with, subordinates. Setting a vision for the team and providing direction do not seem to be part of these managers’ DNA. Often, the track to raises or advancement at a company is only through the process of managing others. Professionals advance to positions of authority because of their expertise and performance as an individual contributor, despite never wanting to be in management. Consequently, when they are in a new management position, they tend to flounder.

In my consulting, I have seen this pattern (called the “Peter principle”) demonstrated by entrepreneurs as well, especially franchise owners, who have been capable of running one store or unit because they could control and keep track of all of the variables. They may not have been very effective managing people at the unit level, but it was not as evident or important because they did everything themselves and their singular unit was still successful. However, once they opened a second or third unit, their hesitance to manage became evident and they struggled because of a reluctance to engage, delegate, or become more involved within more complex organizational and operational structures.

I have identified a hesitant manager as a reluctant boss. Employees of reluctant bosses complain that their managers

  • rarely give direction;
  • have great difficulty making decisions;
  • are unclear about clarifying company policies, roles, and responsibilities;
  • change their minds and back down in the face of conflict; and
  • have great difficulty holding subordinates accountable.

Employees are often confused by their manager’s changing direction and, at times, feel paralyzed and uncertain about the direction in which they should proceed. Although reluctant managers may be very intelligent, their personalities get in the way of their effectiveness and the ultimate success of their team.

In one-on-one conversations, reluctant bosses will seem to engage and even to have a clear idea of their goals for the team and organization. They appear amenable to suggestions and agree with input from others. Employees leaving these one-on-one meetings may feel that they have some direction at last, only to find their manager makes a 180-degree change shortly thereafter, especially when dealing with employees who challenge them. In addition, when reluctant bosses are told of problems that need to be handled, they may verbally commit to fixing them, only to let them fester. Such behaviors may well be passive-aggressive efforts to resist interaction with others, avoid direct confrontation, and delay in making or committing to decisions.

Reluctant bosses typically suffer from the same problem—a severe lack of confidence. They lack confidence in their ability to make the right decision (as if there is only one right decision) and end up continuously faltering in their management role. As a result, they tend to overcomplicate simple decisions and worry excessively about what others may think. They are “hands-off” managers for fear of upsetting others and would rather do things themselves than have conflict or hold others accountable. When interpersonal conflict is involved, these managers can have irrational beliefs about what might happen if they do hold others accountable. As weak-willed managers, they are highly susceptible to manipulation because they have not created a work environment where there are consequences for poor conduct by employees or customers.

When making decisions, these managers can suffer from LILO (i.e., last in, last out), a condition in which a manager will agree with whomever they spoke with last, but only until the next person comes along. They can be people-pleasers to a pathological extent. But by trying to please everyone, they please no one!

Most of the time, reluctant bosses have some awareness of how their inability to take action or be decisive ultimately causes greater disruption in their organizations. But they lack the inner courage to change their behavior. Confronting reluctant bosses only drives them further away, increases the anxiety they already have, and decreases the likelihood that they will make firm decisions or take action.

When you are unfortunate enough to have such a boss, how do you work to help them and the enterprise to be successful? Ultimately, you may have to serve as both their backbone and spokesperson. Keep in mind that what they need are support and encouragement, not criticism. Here are some tips for working with reluctant bosses in one-on-one situations:

Vision: Ask them what they would like the future of their business to look like. Make sure you are actively listening and not passing judgment. They probably have some idea in their minds of what success looks like. Once they have articulated a clear and focused vision, help them communicate that vision to people throughout the organization and publicly support their view of the future.

Decision-Making: Help them identify the decisions they do not like to make. These typically will be the day-to-day operating decisions. Partner with them and express your willingness to spearhead the implementation of difficult decisions. Doing so will likely involve partnering with other members of the team.

Management: Because of their distaste for conflict, they need reassurance and help with being realistic about the actual consequences of having difficult conversations. It is not that they are unaware of the need to have these conversations, they just don’t know how to discuss tough issues.

All of these suggestions require the employee to take a risk and begin acting more like the manager’s colleague instead of his or her subordinate. However, you may find these managers welcome your assistance and begin leaning on you to help steer and focus the organization. By combining their intelligence and understanding of the business with your ability to execute, you may have a very good team.

Surviving the Narcissistic Boss

Stories abound about “the boss from hell,” that executive whose behavior causes havoc in the workplace through a persistent pattern of being entitled, unbending, dominant, arrogant, callous, or even brutal in his or her relationships with others. People working for such tyrants are always “walking on eggshells” to avoid triggering their wrath and often feel beaten down. Rather than focusing on what is best for the business, subordinates are often left trying to guess what will please these self-absorbed bullies.

Why Employees Stay

It is not uncommon for businesses or organizations run by tyrant bosses to experience high turnover. Employees who are psychologically healthy recognize the toxic environment created by such tyrants and leave as soon as they can. Those employees who stay on, however, usually do so for one of the following reasons:

  • There is an expectation, or even a guarantee, that they will be well compensated for enduring the unhealthy behaviors of their boss.
  • They are psychologically unhealthy themselves, such that the abuse feels familiar to them, and their own self-image is so poor that the conduct of their narcissistic boss reinforces it.
  • They cannot get a job elsewhere, so they withdraw emotionally and continue to tolerate the unhealthy behavior.

Understanding Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissistic leaders have a bottomless need for power and admiration. Typically, they believe they deserve continuous special treatment, blame others for their problems, complain constantly of other people disappointing them, and bully and intimidate others. They are often grandiose, aggressive, and lack empathy. They rarely accept or acknowledge the damage they cause to others or to themselves. Consequently, they never see the need to change their behavior, and attempts to counsel or coach them are met with derision or contempt.

Paradoxically, narcissism and excessive self-promotion and entitlement are often linked to low self-esteem. For narcissists, the means of compensating for a profound sense of inadequacy is to present an inflated picture of their capabilities to emphasize their superiority. However, this defense mechanism of convincing themselves that they are valuable—to avoid feeling ashamed of their inevitable human flaws—always comes up short and the cycle of controlling and demeaning behavior continues. Because of such well-constructed defenses, it can be extremely difficult for others to perceive the underlying sense of inadequacy felt by narcissists.

An Upside to Narcissism?

Surprisingly, there is an upside to narcissism, which helps explain why companies may tolerate narcissistic leaders. In his research, psychologist Blaine Gaddis has found that narcissism is related to moving up in an organization, even though it is unrelated to leadership effectiveness. Narcissists are often good at taking initiative and achieving results in the short term. Narcissistic leaders believe they are more effective than those around them, and are aggressive, intimidating, and shamelessly persistent at self-promotion. Examples of successful narcissistic leaders include Ron Miller, former Disney CEO, and Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO. Both men were known as despots who were intolerant of others’ challenges and would even throw temper tantrums and be exceedingly punitive to get their way. These examples are the exceptions that prove the rule: unless the narcissistic leader is in total control and producing results (as Jobs did), his or her rise in an organization is often stalled once the abusive behaviors become more evident.

How to Respond to Narcissistic Bosses

With bosses who are clearly narcissistic, keep in mind that they are unlikely to change because of their tendency to view problems as being caused by everyone else. Your best path is to begin finding ways to exit their organization and move to another. In the event that you are unfortunate enough to be unable to leave their management, there are some things you can do to cope.

Leverage their vision: Narcissists strive to be in positions of status and power. Their whole goal in life is to receive the kind of accolades they believe they deserve. By taking time to understand what the narcissist wants to accomplish in the company, you can actually partner with them to achieve their objectives. Successes that you have helped achieve can serve to satisfy their need for adulation, while allowing you to maintain a position of trust. Over time, it could lead to you helping your boss shape his or her future in a way that furthers the needs of the organization, and even your own career.

Listen reflectively: Because narcissists require ongoing admiration and affirmation, reflecting back to them (i.e., mirroring) the positive contributions they have made to their organizations may keep them temporarily satisfied. Reflective listening needs to be truthful and related to actual accomplishments. Such a strategy will temporarily quell their anxiety and may allow you to do your work relatively free from drama. It is a strategy that needs to be repeated.

Avoid confrontation: Any direct challenge to the behaviors of narcissists will be met with denial, and possibly outrage. By confronting the narcissistic leader, you run the risk of being publicly minimized and shamed. If you must have a difficult discussion with them, have it privately and significantly temper your concerns in order not to threaten them.

Deflect praise: The narcissist is extremely competitive and becomes envious when those around him or her succeed. This is captured in what Gore Vidal once said: “Every time one of my friends succeeds, I die a little.” The narcissist is not able to enjoy the success of their subordinates because it takes the spotlight away from them. In the event that you receive praise and accolades for your work, be quick to include your boss as having been a supporter in the process.

Narcissistic tendencies and behaviors can run the gamut from harmless and mild to extreme and even malignant. The strategies discussed above are more likely to be successful with bosses who have extremely high levels of narcissism. If these strategies do not work because your boss’s narcissistic defenses are “off the charts,” you may want to look for another job.

Managing a Turnaround: Leadership Requirements

It is not uncommon for new leaders to be hired or promoted with the expectation that they will turn things around for a business or operation. Turnarounds require leaders to make difficult decisions, “right the ship,” and make the business or operation successful again. It is critical for such leaders to recognize that the behaviors needed in these situations are very different from those used in a stable or growth-oriented environment. The personality and competencies of turnaround leaders should be well suited to navigating and taking on dramatic change in short periods of time, whether it is for a team, a strategic business unit, or an entire organization.

A turnaround usually involves reducing costs, such as by cutting staff or exiting non-core businesses and non-essential activities. In addition, most turnarounds require a sharpened focus on an organization’s core skills and products. Returning to what made the organization successful previously is usually the first step in restructuring for future success. New leaders in successful turnarounds often come from outside the company. As outsiders, they can bring a fresh perspective so legacy processes and allegiances do not undermine the rigorous decision-making that must be undertaken.

First and foremost, leaders of turnarounds must possess the courage to withstand criticism, the stomach to make personnel changes, the fortitude to stay the course, the head to stay above the chaos, and the vision to know when success has been achieved. These are extraordinary capabilities, and the job is not for the faint of heart. Second, new leaders must know that they will be standing alone at times, supported only by their manager. It is not unusual for people to be resistant to change. As a result, there is an inherent element of criticism or mistrust any time new leaders attempt to change existing conditions.

When undertaking a turnaround, leaders should consider the following actions.

Apply the right leadership traits.

  • Be bold and transparent in declaring that changes will take place.
  • Ask for support, but expect resistance.
  • Be forceful yet empathic.
  • Take charge and give direction.
  • Emphasize working with a sense of urgency.

Create a change coalition.

  • Identify quickly those you can rely on to execute the turnaround plan.
  • Maintain a tight inner circle.
  • Quickly deal with detractors or resistors.
  • Be clear about expectations, roles, responsibilities, and decision-making authority.
  • Be clear about maintaining veto authority.

Know what success will look like.

  • Identify what must change for success.
  • Create a vision using laser focus.
  • Create concrete plans with short timeframes.
  • Identify initiative owners of the plans and timelines.
  • Make obvious changes quickly.
  • Celebrate small victories to maintain morale.

Engage in war room execution.

  • Hold daily meeting updates on progress made toward identified goals.
  • Hold plan owners accountable for meeting milestones.
  • Know when to get involved to accelerate issues and when to stand back (use this as an opportunity to identify and develop people).
  • Revise the plan as necessary to meet the ultimate goal of saving the business.

Claim victory.

  • Recognize when success has been attained.
  • Celebrate the righting of the business or function.
  • Begin returning to a more stable operating environment.
  • Identify leaders to guide the next phase of the organization.

These leadership behaviors may come across as harsh or severe; however, when a business or function is on “life support,” there is little time for collaboration, reflection, or being overly empathic. It is a time for action, operating with a sense of urgency, and preventing distractions and low-value issues from interfering with a team’s singular focus on saving the business.

Turnarounds are among the most difficult leadership challenges. Leaders must have the willingness, courage, and fortitude for such a difficult task. If they do not, they are better off looking at other leadership possibilities. Not everyone can lead a turnaround, and many turnaround leaders cannot grow a business. Leaders in these situations must make sure the fit is the right one—both for them and for the organization.

How Are You Valued: Are You Using the Right Criteria?

When asking individuals about their work, and their value to an organization, it is common to hear about the volume of emails they receive or the number of meetings they attend as evidence of their importance. In fact, it has become a badge of honor for people to complain (disingenuously) about having a full voice mailbox, hours of emails to answer, and a schedule full of meetings. To be stressed is considered proof positive to many that they are important, even indispensable, to their company. Somehow, we have adopted busy-ness as a sure sign of our worth to our companies. Unfortunately, this is akin to the young soccer player getting a trophy just for participating, with his/her parents “high-fiving” them simply for their participation, not their contribution to the team or their team’s accomplishments. It is a false measure! This false valuation becomes a trap in terms of how we promote ourselves to others and, ultimately, how we value ourselves. By using these false criteria to value ourselves, we are essentially sub-optimizing our worth to the organization.

To further substantiate this assertion, a recent survey by Adobe Systems (2015) revealed that employees typically use email six hours a day, or more than 30 hours a week! This includes checking both business and personal emails at work. That is the equivalent of nearly three full workdays a week spent checking email. This happens in spite of the fact that 24% of employees understand they are using email “way too much.” Many are on the receiving end of “blast emails”—emails for which their input is not relevant to the issue, a common organizational CYA tactic (“They were included on the email”). Nevertheless, employees often read these irrelevant emails and reply unnecessarily (to the group, of course, in order to show that they have been attentive). This is a classic example of Stephen Covey’s observation that “the urgent undermines the important.” What is of high urgency to someone else may not be of high importance to you. Time can get away from you when responding to emails or attending meetings that are of low or no value to you. Although few would dispute that email and electronic communication are valuable assets in communicating business concerns, there is often a downside to such modes of interaction.

Citing statistics from various sources, a 2013 article in MeetingKing (October 21) reported that 37% of employee time is spent in meetings. This translates to about 15 hours per week in meetings, or an average of three hours per day. In addition, findings showed that managers attend more than 60 meetings per month. If this weren’t bad enough, 47% of employees considered too many meetings a waste of time, 39% of meeting participants admitted to dozing off during a meeting, and 70% brought other work to meetings. Unproductive meetings were a result of not having agendas, including the wrong people or too many people, no meeting outcomes or assignments, and no follow-up or accountability. Furthermore, attending excessive meetings contributed to employee fatigue and lowered employee morale.

The excessive use of emails and meetings, both communication tools, is ironic in that the single most concerning issue shared by individuals about their businesses is poor communication. In survey after survey, employees complain that the biggest problem in their day-to-day work is poor communication across the organization. How perplexing it is to find that two of the largest wastes of time in a company are related to communication! Just think of how productive companies could be if emails were more effectively managed and meetings were more productive. At the center of this perplexing problem is the degree to which individuals actually perpetuate the problem by automatically sending and responding to low-importance emails and attending meetings that do not add value. This behavior becomes mechanical and done without much reflection. It is similar to a moth’s attraction to light without differentiating between daylight and the light from a fire, ultimately culminating in its flaming demise. The result of this kind of robotic behavior could include your career stalling and your contribution to the organization diminishing. The root of this problem lies in having lost your sense of unique giftedness. In order to make the largest impact on an organization, and positively influence your career along the way, you must first change the way you see yourself. This requires reclaiming who you are—your skills and capabilities—and determining how you can best impact the organization. It requires going back to understand why, among all of the candidates for your position, you were hired (or promoted). What was it that your manager saw in you that set you apart from other candidates?

It would be difficult to argue that being a hard worker is a bad thing. It is equally difficult to argue that networking within an organization is detrimental. However, neither of these activities alone is sufficient for sustained success or maximum impact. In the extreme, hard workers can be less productive due to their inability to set priorities. They can mistake activity for productivity. Similarly, well-networked people can be seen as socializing and interfering rather than influencing or making an impact. In other words, being busy is not a hallmark of being effective! It is the intentional exercise of your gifts that makes a difference for you and for your organization.

In a recent Forbes article, Kevin Kruse (January 2016) interviewed 200 successful people and discovered that they check their emails only a few times a day. In addition, they avoid meetings at all costs, noting that meetings are notorious time-killers. Not everyone can check their emails only infrequently, or are in a position to turn down most meetings. However, there is hope. To get from where you are to where you want to be, consider the following ways to reclaim yourself as a capable professional.

1. Value Yourself

Take a close look at why you have been successful up to this point. This exercise may require soliciting input from trusted advisors or close associates.

  • What are some of the key competencies and capabilities you possess?
  • Why were you selected for your position over other candidates?
  • What difference were you expected to make in your position?
  • In what way have you compromised your sense of self on behalf of being, or appearing, “busy?”

2. Maximize Your Impact

Once you begin to reclaim your unique giftedness, consider how you can claim lost time to refocus your capabilities on more important issues.

  • Time Management
    • Emails—Insist that you be included only on emails that either directly affect you now or in the future, emails involving matters about which you can make a difference, or emails that include critical information regarding the business. Unsubscribe liberally and respond cautiously. Do not send out blast emails yourself. Limit the time you spend on emails and find a specific time during the day that you will respond to them. Very few emails require an immediate response!
    • Meetings—Only attend meetings at which you can make a difference and where your attendance would be additive. Insist that every meeting you attend have an agenda and conclude with tasks, owners, and follow-up. Whenever possible, delegate meeting attendance to others—this will free up your time and could be a development opportunity for them. Do not schedule meetings when a phone call or two would suffice and do not include people in meetings whose value to the meeting is not critical.
  • Priority Management—Consider the following ways to avoid reactively mistaking activity for productivity and allowing the urgent to sabotage the important:
    • Differentiation and calibration—Set aside the same time each day to review everything in which you are engaged. Take an honest look at triaging all of the activities into the following categories:
      • Urgent vs. important
      • Short-term vs. long-term
      • Essential to do myself
      • Can be delegated
      • Can be left undone altogether
    • Focused attention—Begin focusing your attention, and your giftedness, on those items that are important, have far-reaching impact, and can only be completed by you.
    • Execution—For all your prioritization above, set personal objectives with regard to the timeliness, quality, and resources needed to execute the item. Enlist a colleague to both review your priorities and hold you accountable. Work diligently to become intentional about your behavior, instead of mechanical or unthinking.

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to become intentional in the use of your talents and capabilities on behalf of the organization. Your value to the organization is directly related to your impact, not your busy-ness!

Executive Fitness: Is It Really That Important?

I had the unique opportunity to work with a project management team making a large, innovative addition to a power plant. Because the project included new technology to clean up emissions and was a joint venture with a foreign company, it received significant scrutiny from all parties involved. For the project management team, this was either the largest or most innovative project they had ever worked on. Under the pressure to perform and hit scheduling, quality, and financial targets, the project team faced high and constant levels of stress.

As my work with the project team continued into its fourth month, it became apparent that the team had unhealthy diets and poor exercise habits. With few exceptions, team members reported very low levels of physical activity with the common excuse of not having enough time or energy at the end of the day to work out. In addition, many of them believed they got sufficient exercise on-site during the day to fulfill any exercise regimen. I systematically poked holes in their excuses and, in the end, they all agreed that more exercise would be beneficial. I threw down the gauntlet and challenged them to work out daily over the next 30 days, and also agreed to complete the challenge myself. Each challenge participant had to either complete some form of workout or walk 10,000 steps a day, and all had apps on their smartphones to monitor their activity. I provided the team with a 30-day spreadsheet to track our progress, and our work began.

I wondered if my challenge would really help them cope with their stress or just add yet another task to their already busy schedules. The mood-boosting benefits of exercise were clear in the results of a research study conducted at Princeton University (Journal of Neuroscience, May 2014). The researchers found that, when people are stressed, exercise changes the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and calms excitatory circuits that lead to anxiety. Findings from other studies have determined that exercise increases the brain’s level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for a feeling of contentment. Finally, scientists at the University of Illinois (Nature, July 1999) found that exercise improves the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate and enhances overall brain cognition. Taken collectively, during a period of prolonged stress, exercise can help reduce anxiety and increase contentment, concentration, and focus. I was confident completing the challenge would pay off.

At the end of the 30-day challenge, our group convened to review how we did. Every team member had a positive experience and said they felt more productive and less stressed. Participating in the challenge made them more aware of the amount they exercised, which motivated them to increase their activity level. One team member increased how much he walked his dog each day and found that both he and his dog had lost weight! The project team noted other benefits, as well. Thanks to team members encouraging one another in their efforts, camaraderie and teamwork improved.

Study after study has demonstrated the health benefits of exercise. However, more emphasis should be given to the benefits of exercise during highly stressful periods of work life. In fact, because the responsibility of managing large projects and people is so critical to both business success and the well-being of those involved, managers and executives should maximize the tools available to them to perform at their best. Regular exercise is an essential part of optimizing health to better manage work life.