Managing Your Exec’s Toxic Behavior

July 23, 2018

How do you manage toxic behavior in a coworker when that coworker is also a C-suite executive and your direct boss? A couple weeks ago, I highlighted some high level steps that you can take to have a courageous conversation with your exec, but I recently went mining for further insights with Mikaela Kiner, CEO at Uniquely HR; former HR exec at Redfin, Amazon, Starbucks, and Redfin; executive coach; and trusted people ops partner. Here’s what she says:

Toxic behavior is draining. The reality is, you may be working with one or more leaders who aren’t respectful. They yell, blame, criticize in public. They’re narcissists. Managing toxic employees is one thing, but working for a toxic leader is an altogether different challenge. Been there? I have, more than once. In fact, when I launched my company in 2015 my then eleven-year old daughter asked if I was going to have a crazy boss. “Only if I go crazy or drive myself crazy,” I told her. Leaving might eventually be your last resort. But if you enjoy your job and are invested in the company, it’s worth engaging in a conversation to see whether the leader is open to making a change. As a chief of staff, you’ve decided to tackle the problem head on, so let’s get started.

Get Clear on What the Toxic Behavior Looks Like
When we experience or witness toxic behaviors, we tend to stew about it vs. taking action. What if you viewed bad behavior as a business issue? You would put together a plan, prepare, and engage the appropriate people in a conversation about possible solutions.

Name the behaviors and outcomes using factual language. No name calling, no words that are vague and open to interpretation. That includes toxic, arrogant, abusive, bully… you get the idea.

Make a list of who is exhibiting bad behavior, what it looks like – including when/where/how often – and the result. For example, you work for a CEO who raises his voice during weekly staff meetings. He yells at the CMO because she can’t precisely correlate marketing spend on a new campaign to profits. The result is that she withdraws, and the team doesn’t have a meaningful discussion about effective use of marketing dollars.

What if the CEO could ask his question in a productive way, and the CMO could share her data and plans? How would this help the team?

Then there’s the bigger picture. What’s the impact of the leadership team witnessing a disrespectful conversation repeatedly, without anyone stepping in? Others must feel bad for the CMO and intimidated by the CEO. Or maybe they think the CMO is incompetent. Trust will be low, and the team’s ability to engage in healthy dialogue is impacted.

Pick Your Battles, and Your Timing
It’s possible you’ve witnessed lots of dysfunctional behaviors and relationships in the organization. I suggest you start small to practice addressing toxic behaviors, and also test the team’s appetite for change. Most people, including senior leaders, find it easier to receive constructive criticism one piece at a time. Let’s imagine you’re going to talk to the CEO about his behavior. Don’t think about this as “giving him feedback” which is one sided. Imagine engaging him in a conversation about the impact he’s having.

Schedule a private conversation. Don’t bring it up in another meeting or as a hallway conversation. Tell him there’s something you’d like to talk to him about, and make sure you have the time and privacy you need.

Tell him you have an observation about how he comes across in the staff meetings and ask for permission to share it. Let’s assume he says yes. State the facts. For instance, “I’ve noticed that often in staff, you raise your voice at the CMO. Three weeks in a row you’ve asked her about ROI. When you raise your voice she withdraws, then we move on to the next topic.”

Create a shared goal, aka win/win. This is the benefit you’re looking for – if he stops yelling, she’ll speak up, and the result will be a productive discussion about marketing spend.

Ask for his point of view (Does he even see this as a problem?) and offer to brainstorm solutions. It might require more than one meeting but if he’s open to improvement, it’s worth the effort.

What Now?

Let’s say the CEO has gotten this feedback before, but by the time he realizes he’s yelling, it’s too late. You can offer to signal him in the meeting when he starts to raise his voice. By becoming his advocate, you can help facilitate a change he can’t make on his own.

Regardless of how he responds (which you can’t control) you may feel better knowing you spoke up and tried to help. Focusing on what’s in your sphere of control vs. sphere of influence is empowering.

If toxic behavior is pervasive, you may need to talk to the board about a broader team intervention. Follow the same approach by having a factual conversation and looking for the win/win. Make it clear that you’re committed to the company and that you’re looking to increase trust, because it will lead to better business outcomes. It’s not personal.

Working with teams requires an outside facilitator, coach, or mediator who is objective and can hold people accountable. Tools like 360 feedback, DiSC or The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team can be used to uncover and improve harmful team dynamics.

In the end, whether you stay or go is a personal choice. Set a goal and timeline. For instance, if the leaders won’t acknowledge there’s a problem, you may want to move on. Or “If things haven’t improved six months from now, I’m going to start looking for a new job.” In the meantime, double down on exercise, healthy eating, sleep, meditation, or time with friends and family. Know your own limits and what you’re willing to tolerate. No one else can do that for you.

Thanks so much for sharing these insights, Mikaela!

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