Sharon was recently overlooked for promotion in her job after 20 years service. During that time she had taken on numerous extra responsibilities, from voluntary to leadership roles, in a company that is widely regarded among its staff, to be a toxic work environment. When a new employee with limited experience joined the company and was offered promotion after a very short spell, there was a strong sense of revolt among the staff. While the new employee was very nice and obliging, the sense of injustice among the staff towards Sharon was palpable. The new employee had been promoted after developing a strong personal relationship with one of the VPs and had other links within the company. For Sharon, this was the last straw and she felt she had to resign. It was hard for her to leave the company she had shown such loyalty to, but the minute she left, she felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. The company recruitment process was rotten from top to bottom.
I read this story recently in the business pages of a newspaper. It is reminiscent of so many people's experiences in work organizations globally. Potentially great employees, who come into organizations with an inspired heart and a spark in their eyes ready to make a difference, get uninspired and demotivated when they soon realise, their work-places are not a good environment for anyone, as people with good ideas, experience and know how are shunned and pushed aside while politicising ar*e-kissers with significantly less experience get parachuted into leadership positions.
In toxic work environments, a leader will often surround themselves with people that they can control in middle management, a mechanism to help them control the larger group. Those strategically selected for promotion often lack the necessary leadership capacity and skills. This culture of control sees that once the middle leaders are controlled and dance to the party tune, then all will fall into place for the leader to sit back.
Unfortunately, when companies promote people into management positions without the necessary skills, organisations end up with a host of "bosses" and few real leaders. According to Liz Ryan of Forbes Magazine, "weak employees get promoted to lofty positions in fear-based organizations because they are non-threatening to the leaders. Non-threatening is the best thing you can be in a toxic environment. It’s the principal job requirement”.
Fear Based Leadership
Where such leadership exists, it is common for managers to create a culture of fear and coercive control to get their people to work. Such leaders operate in a fear inducing, authoritive climate that makes the work environment an uncomfortable and threatening place for many. Such an environment can induce feelings of resentment and anxiety among the working community, driven by an outdated dictatorial, autocratic, controlling and negative leadership style.
Here, the leader promotes hard working but weak candidates (lets call them a "subordinate power cliques" or "Noddies" for now – they never say no!) so that they can coerce them towards their manner of thought, irrespective of the best interests of the group or work environment. The subordinates are generally insecure in their own thoughts and too weak to offer their true opinion. They have a tendency to just "go along with the boss" and are rewarded over time for doing so - often through further promotion, financially or otherwise!
Here, an element of "cronyism" is fostered by the leader, resulting in poor work relations and weak staff morale. Some "Noddies" or subordinates may be promoted because they know little about management and are incapable of ever seeing through the underhand manner of the manager. In essence, they are promoted to these positions because they are either interested in feathering their own nest, are too naive to see through underhand politics or too weak to stand up for what is right and just on behalf of those mistreated.
According to Liz Ryan, a fearful manager’s greatest fear is not that the business might fail, but that somebody working near them might actually challenge them. An autocratic, controlling manager’s ego is even stronger than the fear of business failure. In a wider topic of discussion, their thought process is similar to that of former world leading dictators that felt they were invincible (ie: Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jung Un etc), albeit at a less life changing level. Recent research has even shown that many leaders of high powered organisations have shown to display psychopathic characteristics where they are more self absorbed with their own ego and control than they are concerned for the good of the group.
Managers in such environments are often known to engage in various types of underhand behaviour; ie: bullying, undermining gossip, bad-mouthing or negatively influencing worker's perceptions of those the leader may see as a threat to their power. As new recruits are added to the roster, they may also be encouraged to avoid or ignore anyone the manager perceives as a threat to their authority. More calculating leaders may even recruit morally weak employees from within their subordinate power clique to do the same, allowing leaders to exert control, sideline and undermine any perceived threat to their authority.
At it's best, many followers operating in this culture, work towards "getting in" with the "subordinate power clique" while others operating under fear, routinely engage with avoidance tactics of their boss - it just makes their lives easier. Many involved in "subordinate power cliques" tend to only concern themselves with their own roles, their own promotion and their own well-being, while the mis-treatment of others, whom they are partially responsible for as middle leaders, is not important to them. Other subordinates may even be used to do their “leader’s” dirty work - ie: deliver messages that leaders don't want to be seen to deliver, to coerce or induce fear in front line employees. The rest (the Noddies) are often just too naive to see the bigger picture. Once they get looked after, everything is fine, while contrived nepotism may often occur in the recruitment of new employees. After a period of time, employees just accept this type of behavior as normal. They become institutionalized within the organization, often believing that every company has a similar kind of management or culture.
This controlling style is an aspect of leadership that contradicts all evidence of best practice as research suggests that autocratic dis-empowering leadership may work in the immediate short term (coercing and controlling inexperienced recruits into line) but the quality of work will be average at best and it is never sustainable in the long run.
According to Jim Harter, Gallup’s Chief Scientist, it is the rite of passage in many organizations to promote someone based on their performance at a totally unrelated job. So if you are good at front line tasks; sales for example or any number of specialties – and stay around long enough, the next step in your progression is to be promoted to a managerial role.
However, the skill-set that makes someone successful in front-line non-management roles are rarely the same ones that will make them excel as a manager or leader. In fact, research shows that new managers are usually promoted without the skills needed to lead effectively and 47% of companies do not have a new supervisor training program in place to help them bridge the gap according to Ken Blanchard. Autocratic, coercive power mongering leaders prey on that leadership knowledge deficit in newly promoted candidates to mould the environment and culture in their favour to where they have full control.
It can be hard for such employees to see their fear when they are in the middle of it according to Liz, but when you’re out of that toxic environment, you soon realize how toxic that environment was and how much the management of the organization contributed to the creation of that environment.
True Leaders don't create followers.
Employees in a fear based climate become less interested in the success of the company, the quality of the product or service, or the customer experience as the company often represents nothing but resentment for them. In these instances, employees become more concerned with keeping their jobs and avoiding contact with boss. The effect of such tactics certainly affects employee well-being and engagement and in certain circumstances, depending on nature of role of employee, the customer experience. When employees are stressed and fearful, their dissatisfaction can potentially seep into conversations with clients, and their frustrations with their’ organization’s culture may be voiced as a red flag to potential employees.
As we all know, there is a cost to poor leadership in any organisation! Invariably, this occurs through high staff turnover, resulting in costs accumulated through new staff training, loss of expertise and reduction in output of front line people. The cost can also occur as an asset loss (people capital), as strong experienced staff with positive customer relations and know how, are needlessly disenfranchised and leave the organisation.
From an employee perspective, poor leadership can have more serious personal costs. It can cause mental or physical health issues due to work related stress, depression and or anxiety. In fact, research has shown employee days lost due to mental ill-health costs approximately 500 million euro in revenue per annum in Ireland. An even bigger cost is that of "presenteeism"; a state of being present at work but disengaged due to poor leadership. In fact, research has shown "presenteeism" to cost up to 3.5 billion euro annually to businesses in Ireland.
Fear, threats and bullying behavior has no place in management and leadership. If anyone does use fear as a strategy to increase output or force higher standards, then they know little about leadership and have no place managing or leading anyone! Fear dis-empowers and turns employees’ attention inward and into a high stress state.
The opposite type of leadership is empowering, creating an environment of creativity, sustainable progress and company growth where people are happy to be open, expressive and be themselves. Here, an effective leader will surround himself with people who know more than they do and are willing listeners. They tend to be open, honest and fair and have little or nothing to hide in the manner in which they conduct themselves in their roles as leaders. They mostly look to enhance the skill-set of the leadership team using a transformative, empowering leadership style that enables creativity in new leaders to expand the leadership capacity of the organization. Here, real true leaders are developed and given autonomy to empower those around them for an altogether different and positive working environment.,
In Sharon's case, it turned out that the boss and so-called "Leader" was politicising with the interview panels, running Sharon down to the interview panel before she attended for interview while bigging up the candidates he wanted simultaneously ie; the successful candidates before they ever entered for interview. He was also illegally present at the determination of successful candidates to ensure that she, among others were held back from progressing in their careers. He brought his gerrymandering to new levels when he persuaded one of his subordinate power clique to replicate this in phone calls to interview panelists prior to the day of interview itself.
All was eventually exposed, as some within the interview room were more loyal to justice and equality than the underhand ways of the so called leader. When the company's board of management realised the level that he went to ensure that she was held back, his position and the positions of other directors became untenable, and they were stood down by company management in shame. Nobody could believe the depth of his gerrymandering ways, while everybody was happy and relieved that he was sacked. Like all corrupt, dirty dynasties and power mongers with dirty secrets (Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, Rodovan Karadzic, John Delaney's FAI, Pat Hickey's OCI), it all came out in the wash!
So don’t settle for a toxic, fear-based organisation; it’s not good for your professional development, your health or your energy. Besides, there are many better options out there, so make that jump to change your life. If you are not happy in your environment, change your environment because we owe it to ourselves to live happy, healthy lives.
"People don't often leave jobs. They leave toxic work cultures"
"Unleash Your Potential"
Keith Begley is an Irish based performance psychology consultant, accredited with Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport