Some leaders are not leaders at all. They are "Mis-Leaders." HR leaders often know about managers who defy gravity... they are abusive and they suck the life out of people around them. However, they often manage to appear productive. The complaints do not always carry enough weight to overcome this false sense of effectiveness. Now science adds more to the argument that such social "Jerks" create even more problems just by their presence! An article I first saw in the Boston Globe reports on a new study suggesting their presence actually may be contaminating co-workers much more than we previously thought.
Researchers presented subjects with a profile and picture of one person described as a "fair leader" and another person described as an "unfair leader". Then they were given a task and subliminally exposed to either the image of the fair or unfair leader. They then gave the same people another task. The result: Those exposed - just exposed - to the unfair leader performed significantly worse... more abusive and unfair... themselves.
So, accepting "Jerk" behavior puts performance in jeopardy. The risk is greater than you think.
So what can you do?
1. Get intensive feedback for the "Mis-Leader." If you are a human resources professional you may have difficulty convincing his/her boss that the situation is dire enough. However, it should be easier to convince the boss to support coaching...or at least increase the feedback given to the individual. It is often that such individuals have a very large blind spot - an inability to comprehend the impact their behaviors have on others. A very large and very clear mirror is required.
2. Provide an opportunity for change. Coaching, when supported by good data often helps. We have seen many Mis-leading managers... even the real Jerks... make changes that changed their toxicity to the people around them. We have used 360 degree assessments but those gathering emotional intelligence traits and asking for specific feedback on words and actions they have seen from the individual. I remember one such assessment where several respondents mentioned the manager's characteristics of waving his arms when he was upset during conversations which made him appear more aggressive than he really was. He was totally unaware until he received the feedback and a few days afterwards he caught himself in the very act of arm waving. That was all it took to make a change. The urge to arm wave became his signal to take a breath and think about his actions and responses to others.
3. Inoculate the team. Find ways to develop the coping skills of team members around the Jerk. Providing basic communication skills training for the team - including the manager is one example. While only half measures - these skills can often defuse a situation before it escalates. If there is simultaneous work with the manager then the situation often recovers.
4. When efforts fail - remove the contagion. Toxic leaders create much more damage than any benefit they bring. If the toxic behaviors cannot be remedied then there are many places for the manager to go... as long as it is outside of your organization.
Have you had an experience with a "toxic jerk" in the workplace ?