What’s Your Trace of Toxicity?


Last week I met with two of my favorite Haas Business School young alumnae. They both work for a large company whose name I will not reveal. The company is again on the most recent list of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” with a blurb that would make you say, “Wow, I’d like to work at that place!” But my conversations with these two young women reminded me of this blast of truth from Buckingham and Coffman’s First Break All the Rules: 

[Y]our immediate manager is more important [than “great workplace” practices].  She defines and pervades your work environment… It is better to work for a great manager in an old fashioned company, than for a terrible manager in a company offering an enlightened employee-focused culture.  In short, managers are the lynch-pin to employee satisfaction and productivity. [emphasis added]

“Defines and pervades your work environment.” Isn’t that what the intrusive power of a toxic boss is like? Actually, as strong as that language is, they might have been better to say, “pervades your life.”  One of the two mentees confessed to me that her boss is affecting her health and that her family notices her misery at home.  She gave me flashbacks to the eight or so hellish years my dad for worked for PJ Stone (name changed) at Ford back in the 70s.  Dad detested what he saw as inauthenticity and arrogance (the use of initials instead of a first name, he told us, was a pretty good sign of a phony, mimicking the high level execs).  This boss was a master at making people miserable.  PJ Stone was the ghost at our dinner table.  I honestly believe he helped shorten my dad’s life.

Allow me to briefly dissect the two alums’ experiences, because they are instructive for me, and perhaps you.  One is almost literally imprisoned in a conference room, having to ask permission to go to lunch or for coffee, and required to stay until 7:00 even when the work is done.  This is a woman who for two years did a better job of grading papers for me than I did. If ever there were a person who did NOT need micromanaging, it was her.  The other alumna has the opposite problem – a boss who explains little, ignores requests for direction, and fails to do what he says he will do.  These two bosses are toxic to a fault and leave me wondering, how in the world can such a reputable organization have such disreputable managers?!

PJ and these two managers seep toxins into their environments.  But none of us are free of toxic leakage. And each of us is responsible to know what our poison is likely to be.  Do you know yours?  These three bosses offer two extreme examples of toxicity, but they are merely poles on a “spectrum” of natural human dysfunction.  At one end of the pole, total micromanagement; extreme fear of failure; inability to allow mistakes; fear of trusting anyone to do it right.  And at the other end, an unwillingness or inability to engage; maybe it’s fear of pushing people, or feeling like an imposter, or thinking every employee should learn everything on their own.  I know I fall to this side of the spectrum, flying at 10,000 feet and not giving sufficient direction, especially to help new people.

What’s your poison?  If you don’t think you have one, then you really have one.  If you’re not sure, ask. Your employees know.

Awareness is always step one!  Strive to know the ways in which you may be unintentionally releasing toxins, so that you can

Lead with your best self.