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Seven reasons organisations keep toxic managers

Besides harming subordinates, toxic managers harm the organisations they work in. They incur hidden and indirect costs, competent employees leave, absenteeism increases, and tasks are carried out mechanically. Ultimately, dissatisfaction encourages unproductive talk about the behaviour of the boss.

Organisations that leave toxic managers in place never admit it. If they did, they would have to announce:

‘Come and join our organisation. Our management will compromise your sanity, derail your projects, and destroy your morale.’

But the reality is exactly this. Newcomers discover their toxic manager for themselves, and the company leaves those already in the system to suffer. Nobody working under these conditions can work optimally. Why, then, do organisations persist in keeping toxic managers, knowing the effect it has on employees and the hidden costs to the company?

Financial Success

We all know of successful toxic managers, even brilliant leaders. Steve Jobs of Apple was one of the most well known; Jack Welch of General Electric was another. He was often described as a bully. Books have been written about them. Their boards of directors and shareholders considered that a few disgruntled employees were a small price to pay for their strategic genius, and their organisations’ financial success year after year.

These people are considered visionary leaders. But, most financially successful toxic managers are not visionary leaders, so there is little to gain from working for them.  As morally reprehensible as this might be for subordinates, it is too bad. They take it or leave it; the world is a tough place.

For toxic managers further down the hierarchy, ‘results orientation’ and ‘getting things done’ replace financial success. As with the financially successful toxic managers, these managers are often considered successful and kept in the company.

It is obvious that a successful non-toxic manager is preferable, but the effort required to fire a toxic one and hire someone else, coupled with the risk that the new one might not produce as good results as the toxic one, is too great for senior management. They decide to keep their toxic manager.

Management don’t know

Sometimes management don’t know they have toxic managers in their organisation, or even in their team. Unethical managers, indecisive managers and managers who never make decisions: no-decision managers are in this category. They hide their toxicity from the hierarchy above them. However, management should know they have them the organisation, the information is readily available from  Human Resources and subordinates.

Unethical managers never announce their dishonesty, or their deviation from company processes and procedures. They know when they are discovered, they are likely to be fired regardless of previous success. Unethical managers can bankrupt their organisation, so management do tolerate such behaviour when they finally discover it.

Similarly, no-decision managers do not reveal their weakness of never making decisions. Those that remain in organisations have successful survival strategies. One of these strategies is managing information filtering through the company about their lack of decision-making, and being ready to anticipate and counter any criticisms about this weakness. Thus, they ensure that management do not know they never make decisions.

Friends in high places

Some managers are protected by their hierarchy. They have ‘friends in high places’, so can do nothing wrong. This is especially useful for toxic managers, as it means they can keep their positions and continue with their normal toxic behaviour, without risk or blame.

Those protected by their bosses are rarely fired. Many of these bosses are deaf to negative information about the managers they protect, even from peers or Human Resources. There needs to be extreme toxicity, and the start of a consensus in management around the protecting boss, before they listen to the criticism. But even then, it may take a long time before they take action.

Too expensive to fire

There is an unwritten rule in many organisations that when a toxic manager is discovered late in their career and considered too expensive to fire, they are left in place. Top management will compare the cost of the lay-off with the total salary left to be paid before retirement. When the cost of the lay-off is greater than the salary left to pay, the toxic manager is often left in place to continue to harm their subordinates.

It all comes down to profit. Financial cost takes priority over toxicity, in the same way as the successful toxic manager, where financial success takes priority.

Company culture

I have worked in family-run companies where managers are in place because of their relationship to the family: they are cousins, spouses, children, friends or whatever. Competence is not a criterion for hiring, but the relationship to the family group is. As a result, managers end up in positions where they are incompetent, and many of these companies have a high ratio of toxic managers. It becomes part of the company culture, even if the family does not admit it or want it.

This situation is further complicated when a manager needs to be disciplined for doing something wrong, but is not. This occurs when senior leadership is concerned about the repercussions of such discipline on other members of the family in other departments. So in the end, no punishment is imposed, and immobility becomes the management philosophy.

While the family remains in control, no change is likely: it is their company, and this is the way they want to manage it. Subordinates in the system not in the family group must accept the situation or leave.

Managing upwards

Another way toxic managers can stay in the organisation is to become experts at managing their bosses: managing upwards. They give the boss what they want, when they want it, and in the manner they want it. These managers can use this expertise and the resulting special relationship with their boss to hide their toxicity.

Not toxic enough

And finally, there is the excuse that they are not toxic enough to take action. Results are average or a little below, so there is no reason to intervene. They are not good enough to promote or bad enough to fire, so management leaves them in place.

Perhaps, subordinates might not complain enough, having resigned themselves to working with the toxic manager. Resignation that the toxic boss will stay in position, and that they are unable to leave or decide to stay and suffer.

This state of resignation is a little less toxic for the organisation. Fewer people leave because the competent ones have already left. Absenteeism stays high. Subordinates go through the motions of work. But the situation remains toxic, and employees are not working in an optimal condition.

What does this say about management?

Management leave toxic managers in place on purpose. Financial success, getting things done, being too expensive to fire, company culture or not being toxic enough are all excuses to keep toxic managers. They know the costs to their organisation, and they know the suffering of their employees, but they sacrifice them by taking no action.

I find this disturbing in itself, but worse, they never help subordinates work with toxic managers. They leave them to discover ways to cope with toxicity on their own, through books and articles. If they helped, they would have to admit they have a policy of keeping toxic managers in their organisation. The only time management admits to keeping toxic managers is when they help coach a few high-potential toxic ones to become non-toxic.

If senior management don’t know they have toxic managers in their organisation, they should know. It is part of their job. They should have processes in place to detect managers who are a danger to the organisation. Many HR systems detect incompetent managers, but there are few to detect toxic ones. ‘360 Feedback’ is one such system, but even here, I have found that when a toxic manager is discovered, management does nothing.

Nothing has changed, and whatever anyone recommends, nothing will for the reasons given. If the bosses decide not to take action, Human Resources should at least, help employees working for toxic managers. The stated objective would be to improve productivity, reduce turnover and absenteeism, and eliminate hidden costs. The real objective would be to eliminate the frustration, anger and fear of employees working for them.

But there are organisations out there that never accept toxic managers, on principle. They have systems to detect them and then take action, either by firing them or coaching them to eradicate their toxicity. These are the organisations to work in.

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