Maybe not toxic but certainly wet!

Bad Blood, Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, the current re-read Saturday book, is an example of a toxic environment on a grand scale. Every attribute that we reviewed earlier in this theme on toxic cultures can be found in the tale Mr. Carreyrou describes. In the next installment of the re-read we are stepping back from the narrative to highlight how toxic cultures at this level can be used as a cautionary tale to help keep teams on the straight and narrow.  Highlighting the behaviors of a toxic leader provides another framework to evaluate or identify a toxic environment.

  1. Spare the rod and spoil the employee.  Leaders that focus on solely identifying and correcting employees that are doing the wrong thing or the right thing incorrectly create an environment where avoiding mistakes is more important than innovation or delighting the customer.  A hybrid of this pattern of behavior occurs when one person can do no wrong and everyone else is a miscreant, which generates similar behavior.
  2. Overbearing bureaucracy.  Where the distance between an employee and a decision is large and/or ambiguous, either soul-sucking weight, passive aggression or outright misbehavior by employees are often generated. Misbehavior is often followed by micromanagement from leaders.
  3. An obsessive focus on bottom-line or ROI goals leads to an over-reliance on cost containment and price competition. This, in turn, then leads the organization to need to squeeze costs and people development.  An overemphasis on cost reductions often leads to a productivity death spiral (and a reduction in morale and increased turnover).
  4. A bully or bullies rule the roost. Bullying as a motivation tool yields people that are more motivated to avoid pain and the bully rather than putting out extra effort or to innovate. Bullies tend to single individuals out for attention rather than everyone around them which keeps larger groups from ganging up on them.
  5. No work-life balance.  An emphasis on the job to the detriment and expense of health, personal interest and/or family will have a deleterious impact on all phases of workers’ lives. Often leaders using this tactic see activity and long hours as a measure of productivity rather than the quality and value of the product being developed.
  6. Credit thief. Leaders that claim the credit for the ideas of their subordinates will illicit three very different behaviors.  The first is the “fawner” who sees the leader as being able to do no wrong; a fawner exists to feed the credit thief. The second is the “sufferer” who is unhappy with the situation (and typically tells others) but stays until they can find somewhere else to be. Finally, the “guerilla fighter” who shops ideas to other leaders which allows the “guerilla fighter” to hold on to some credit while passively discrediting the credit thief.  
  7. Teflon boss. No problem, big or small, is ever their responsibility. Blame rains down around them leaving them dry. The behavior leads to a risk-averse set of followers, low morale and high turnover.

I have had some of these bosses over the years. I have turned down engagements when the central player fit one of these characteristics. No one really wants to be around people with these behaviors.  If you are participating in the re-read, you know that these behaviors and the attributes noted in the essay Attributes of a Toxic Environment are present in Bad Blood, Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.  Next, we will explore how these behaviors affect teams in more depth.