The Rise of the Toxic Leader:  Time to Revisit the No A**hole Rule

I recently read an absolutely fantastic article in Psychology Today about the rise of toxic leaders and toxic workplaces. The article points out that while leadership development and management theory currently espouse a leadership style that is selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent, and altruistic, we still, when faced with hiring leaders in organizations, hire psychopaths, narcissists, and bullies. What’s worse, we the people who work in these organizations follow those bullies. This problem is pervasive across the U.S. economy and it’s getting worse.

Over my career I have worked for many toxic leaders in many toxic organizations. As a result I have become something of an expert on identifying the warning signs. Here are a list of things to be on the lookout for and do anything you can to diffuse in your organization:

  • All sticks, careful rationing of carrots
  • Cost-cutting without consideration of other factors
  • Bullying of employees by management or tolerated by management
  • High levels of turnover and absenteeism
  • Little or no concern for work-life balance, including insistence on 24/7 availability for work communication

You are not powerless. There are many things you can do to keep an organization from tipping over into a toxic environment or to turn a toxic environment around. Top on that list is hiring.

As an HR leader I have had to explain over and over to people a really great guy who doesn’t do any work is not a good employee. Likewise, the guy who gets everything done and is a complete jerk is also not a good employee. Robert Sutton in his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t and then again in his Harvard Business Review article, points out a fundamental truth that we should never forget: “Demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies.”

Here are three things that I ask everyone who reads this article to commit to doing for themselves and their organizations:

  1. Adopt the no asshole rule. Have those conversations when you’re making hiring decisions. We want really great people who get the job done. Those would be good employees. They are out there and we should hire them.
  2. Refuse to tolerate negative behavior in your organization. For example, when someone asks me, “Can I play devil’s advocate?” I say no. I tell them I am very interested in what they have to say and ask them to please take a moment to re-phrase their comment in a positive and helpful manner.
  3. Be good to each other at work. You spend a lot of time together. Choose to be the kind of inspirational leader that you would want to work for. Seek a mentor who has those positive and productive leadership attributes and learn from that person. Drive your organizational culture; don’t let it drive you.

If none of these things are possible, vote with your feet. Leave. Toxic environments are contagious. They will infect you and you will carry them home to your family and others that you care about. Nothing is worth the toll that a toxic work environment has on your health and well-being. Choose freedom.
Want to read more?

Psychology Today: 5 Reasons Why We Follow Bad Leaders
HBR: Coaching the Toxic Leader

Generation Me:  I Am Them and They Are Me

Over the past several years, I have heard over and over about the expectations of the new generation entering the workforce. I have heard the attributes of these youthful employees described in great detail—they need less social approval, they have higher levels of self-esteem and narcissism, they are more externally focused. There have been books, and seminars, and articles, and papers.

Rather than grow weary of the topic, I decided to go find that research myself, read through it, and draw my own conclusions. And at the end of all that, here is what my brain said to me, “I am them and they are me.”

Everybody loves a good story, so let me tell you a story about an early career HR professional I know well. She arrived at her new job, fresh faced and ready to start her HR career. First day in the profession. She walked in the building and discovered water pouring out of the ceiling. There were trash cans, buckets, and puddles everywhere. People were tossing giant piles of soggy paper into industrial size trash bins. There had been an unexpected freeze over the weekend and the pipes had burst. It was a disaster. Things did not improve much from there. By the end of the first week, the lack of organization, inspiration, and direction led her to conclude that she needed to be in charge because all of this was simply unacceptable. At that moment she set a goal to be the Director of Human Resources, sooner rather than later.

I’m sure you’ve all met this person. The whippersnapper who thinks they can be a vice president in three years. Well, here’s the best part of this story. That person was me--30 years ago. I remember my early career very, very well. I made a point to remember. I remember being very excited. I remember feeling “launched.”  I remember making myself a promise that when I was in charge, things would be different.

In fact, when I look at the descriptions of the four generations currently in our workforce, over the past 30 years, I have been all of them. I am them and they are me. I conclude that I agree with the findings of Trzensniewski & Donnellan (2010) that “…every generation is Generation Me. That is, until they grow up.”

I did get to be a vice-president. In fact, as the Chief Human Capital Officer of NASA I would argue that I had the best HR job on the planet or off.  I did work very hard every day to make things different. I choose to believe I succeeded. When I think about my career, I am glad I had those wild, youthful aspirations. Sometimes, I can’t believe that my youthful aspirations actually became realities. Most of all, I’m grateful that I still maintain my youthful optimism after three decades in the workplace. That, I believe, is the challenge--to keep the best parts of each generational experience alive as we pass through all of them.

(Photo of me as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1983)


I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about organizations that manage multiple cultures and the degree to which cultures should blend or remain distinct.   

Blended cultures are not at all uncommon in the Federal government.  We have agencies that are a combination of military and civilian, Foreign Service and civil service, intelligence and defense, law enforcement and civilian, lawyers and everybody else.  Some agencies learn to appreciate the cultural differences in their organizations and others struggle decades after consolidation.

This got me thinking about the astonishing statistic in the private sector that 75% of all mergers fail.  In some ways we are lucky in the Federal government because failure is not an option.  A law was passed, we are now one happy family with a mission important to the American people, there is no going back, get on with it.  Like Cortez, the ships have been burned and we have no choice but to move forward and explore the new world.

But, having no choice but to succeed and doing something really, really well are two very different things.  As I was strolling around the internet, I found a really thoughtful article on this topic by Tim Donnely, contributor.  After doing a bit of reading, I’ve gleaned 5 sound pieces of advice on this tricky topic that I’d like to share:

  1. Most companies fail because of self-inflicted wounds. Think before you act and look before you leap.
  2. Understand your different cultures and factor the differences into your preparations for any big change.
  3. Don’t try to change everything. You don’t need one common culture for everyone to work together. (My personal favorite.)
  4. Communicate overarching expectations and empower people to have a voice in what the new culture is going to be.
  5. Don’t expect all of this to happen right away. Evolution takes time.

This strikes me as good advice on many levels, from a big merger to an inter-office partnership.  It’s been my observation that we spend too much time trying to force fit people into a new mold when perhaps what we should be doing is appreciating the parts of the whole, valuing what each unique work culture adds to the mix. 

It made me think...and think...and act! 

(The photo is of a puzzle rock from Kennedy Space Center. As the crawler travelled to the launchpad, the force of the treads was so great that stones were split apart instantly, creating puzzles you can piece together.)