When the CEO is Toxic, Vaccinate, Isolate and Validate

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May 2, 2019

We’ve all had lousy bosses – and we’ve had some really good bosses, as well.

In my non-profit executive days I had some great bosses – and one boss that was world-class awful. This vice president asked me to lie in front of 300 volunteers and staff. I refused. He wasn’t happy.

I left that organization as quickly as I could.

The reality is that some bosses – from the executive offices to department leaders – are monstrous. They dismiss, demean, and discount others’ efforts, ideas, and accomplishments every day. They are immensely skilled at and are highly committed to tearing others down, indiscriminately and brutally.

A colleague described a time he was working for a CEO who lived up to that monstrous moniker. This CEO berated his executive team members regularly – often in front of the entire group. Those executives went into meetings wondering who would be the victim this time.

Can you “fix” a mean senior leader? It’s a rare circumstance when a senior leader changes their stripes and behaves respectfully. That kind of evolution usually requires the CEO to be given “undeniable data” about the negative impact his or her behavior has on trust, respect, and results. If that senior leader is interested in reducing his or her negative impact, executive coaching can guide the leader to more respectful interactions.

It does happen. I’ve seen it. However, it is not common. What is common is that the CEO continues to behave badly and the rest of the executives have to figure out how to manage the CEO’s hair-trigger anger.

The good news is that it’s possible for executives to create a reasonably healthy work culture despite the mean CEO. These three steps will help.

1. Inoculate

First, every member of the senior leadership team – executives, HR directors, etc. – have to get inoculated. This “vaccine” isn’t a medical solution but a mental one: each senior leader must accept that this CEO isn’t going to change. They must steel themselves to being mistreated – and then not, in turn, mistreating others.

This is a tough prescription: “Buck up and take it.” It is, however, the best way to deal with the environment these senior leaders find themselves in.

And, only when senior leaders understand that the CEO’s bad treatment isn’t going to go away will they be able to invest the time and energy required for these next two steps.

2. Insulate

Second, senior leaders must insulate the rest of the organization from the CEO’s bad behavior.

You’ve heard the expression, “crap flows downhill.” In this scenario, the crap is angry mistreatment by top leaders of team members throughout the organization. After all, if the CEO demonstrates demeaning behavior, many executives will emulate that demeaning behavior. The CEO’s role modeling is powerful (powerfully bad).

My colleague described how he and his executive team members conspired to create as positive a work environment as possible. Conspire is a terrific term for this approach. It’s a bit subversive – but in a thoroughly positive way.

It requires senior leaders to band together to:

  • Eliminate any discussion or complaining about the CEO’s poor treatment of senior leaders. There can be no leaks!
  • Set high standards for results and respect and model both of those ideals daily.
  • Proactively praise each other and each other’s departments and divisions (more on this important step in the “validate” step below).

It is extremely unlikely for the CEO to proactively cheer and praise good work; it is up to senior leaders to take up the slack regularly.

3. Validate

Third, senior leaders must engage in a cooperative, proactive daily effort to validate others’ efforts, ideas, and accomplishments – and require that leaders throughout the organization do the same.

Too few players in our organizations receive thanks, praise, or encouragement daily. Tiny Pulse’s engagement report The 2019 Employee Engagement Report found that only 25% of employees feel strongly valued at work.

Look for things going well – then express gratitude to leaders, players, teams, etc. for their contributions. Too often senior leaders see or hear about good things happening but they do not take the extra step to engage and communicate thanks.

Set high standards for results and for respectful treatment of peers and customers – then look for and express thanks for both output and civil treatment.

These three steps are not easy, but they can help senior leaders create a purposeful, positive, productive work culture despite the CEO’s demeaning treatment of others.

Don’t give up. Engage!

Image by Vicki Nunn from Pixabay