The 5 sins of Badly Behaving Leaders and the 5 ways you can protect yourself (somewhat)

As most in the U.S. have heard by now, the nascent candidacy of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is under fire for accusations about Klobuchar mistreating her staff. Some of the accusations have included:

  • Yelling and humiliating staff for sometimes minor issues (such as small grammatical errors)
  • Throwing things out of anger in the office (but not hitting anybody with them)
  • Asking the staff to do demeaning tasks, such as Klobuchar reportedly once yelled at a staff member for not bringing a fork for her salad on a flight, then ate the salad with a comb and subsequently told the staffer to clean the comb (um, I know it is besides the point, but how about cleaning it before you eat the salad, too?);

When confronted by these accusations, Senator Klobuchar has said at a CNN Town Hall, “Am I a tough boss sometimes? Yes. Have I pushed people too hard? Yes. But I have kept expectations for myself that are very high. I’ve asked my staff to meet those same expectations.” It is also important to note that many of her long-term staffers have come out in support of her and her management style, some noting that being tough is what we want in our leaders.

There are many good articles and reporting on this story if you want to find out more about these accusations.  It has sparked a lot of interesting debate about whether we hold tough women to a double standard, and what the line is between having high expectations and abuse (and the fact that both can exist at the same time). 

I am waiting to hear more on this story before making any personal judgments about Senator Klobuchar’s candidacy, but in the meantime, I have really appreciated the story’s spotlight on something many of us have seen through the years: leaders behaving badly towards their immediate staff. Some of these leaders could be brilliant communicators and beloved by the employee population at large; however, their day-to-day interaction with their people reveals almost a Jekyll & Hyde situation.

Why is this important? First, no person should feel abused at work. It is one thing to feel pushed hard or feel the pressure of high expectations, and it is another to feel subjected to cruelty and humiliation. Putting moral and ethical considerations aside, it becomes “anti-talent” because you simply cannot bring your best of yourself to work when it is being abused.  

And if that wasn’t enough, it is bad for the organization, its growth and its culture. This is especially true when the leader in question is the CEO since the people in his orbit that may be abused are the other key leaders in the organization, which tends to have a trickle down affect that can infect the entire business. 

More specifically, here are 5 sins of badly behaving leaders:

  1. Suppressing Innovation (or creating the Blame Culture)

To me, the definition of a “toxic” culture is one in which people’s behavior is guided by fear of being blamed for failure. This culture almost always starts at the top. The same leaders who make public pronouncements about the importance of innovative “trying and failing,” actually have no patience for any perceived failure.

Once you get yelled at for, say, small grammatical errors, you are going to be far less likely to attempt riskier projects. Innovative thinking is left on the table, and people seek only “safe” projects. You lose all sense of psychological safety at work.

2. Wasting Talent (or “I am the State”)

In my opinion, this is the biggest sin of badly-behaving leaders. These leaders believe, as Louis XIV said famously, “L’etat c’est moi (I am the State).” This means that anything that is good for the leader is good for the company. This is often how staff gets into situations like washing combs.

There is no doubt that leaders sacrifice a tremendous amount to do their jobs, and the opportunity cost of their time is extremely high. CEOs particularly need more help than most executives because there are so many demands on their time and presence.  However, it is the complete lack of respect for the opportunity cost of those underneath when this becomes an issue. Not only is what you are asking them to do humiliating; it is also keeping them from doing tasks that may be more valuable to the company.

3. Distracting from What Really Matters

Bad behavior is a distraction. If you had joined Amy Klobuchar’s campaign because you believe that only she possesses the leadership necessary to take the country where it needs to go, that idealism and sense of purpose might get lost in the day-to-day fear of having a binder thrown (allegedly). 

As many of us in the communications and HR fields believe, a sense of purpose is a major driver in retaining and engaging talent (for a classic in this space, see Simon Sinek’s Start with Why).  When we lose that sense of purpose, we lose our organizational compass, and our “calling” becomes a job. This problem is compounded when the badly-behaving leader is the CEO, because this distraction from the purpose ends up happening to the top leaders and staff who work directly with him; often the very people who are supposed to be modeling purposeful behavior to the rest of the employee population.

4. Creating a reactive culture (or pleasing an audience of one)

Those of you who have worked in the orbit of a badly behaving leader know that despite best intentions, much of what drives action around those leaders is trying to please them (or at least avoiding displeasing them). It becomes almost a parental relationship.

Much time is spent anticipating what will make them happy and what will draw their ire. This means that less time is spent thinking about what will be good for the organization or its customers.  Sometimes what pleases the leader in question is also what is good for the organization, but it doesn’t always work that way.

5. Bleeding your best talent

All of this ends in the best talent leaving. Think of who would stay and want to try to thrive under these conditions? Would it be the innovatively courageous or the rising stars who could eventually become a threat? Or the people who are content to “wait things out” or is worried about their value to another organization.

5 Ways to Protect Yourself

Unfortunately, particularly when it is the CEO, it is difficult for staffers, including internal communications, to do much about changing these circumstances. It really takes either a strong leadership team, or a strong Board to recognize bad behavior and what it does to a company, and do something about it. The move to taking action under such circumstances is made more difficult if the company is somehow doing well and growing. There is natural fear of fixing something that is not broken. “He’s not nice to his team, but whatever he is doing is working.”

However, there are a few actions you can take as a direct report or staffer to these types of leaders that can protect you to some extent. Many of these things are things we should all be doing anyway, but become even more important to surviving certain leaders:

  1. Be outcomes focused: When your actions are focused on outcomes that are hopefully aligned with the organizations stated objectives, you can keep the conversation about those objectives instead of about your competence, intelligence, etc.
  2. Be metrics focused: As part of being outcomes focused, it helps to show data behind why you are suggesting an action or direction. Also unfortunately, you may need this data if your role or your work’s value to the organization comes into question by the leader. 2
  3. Always have a bead on the voice of the employee: Particularly if you are in communications or in HR, it is important to have a very transparent and consistent way of hearing directly from employees, and be able to use that voice to explain your course of action.
  4. Check your self-esteem. And by “check” it, I don’t mean check it at the door. It is difficult to not let the words of a leader affect your self worth, particularly if those words are personal and humiliating. However, what you need to check is your ability to withstand those attacks by really knowing and believing in your strengths. Of course, validating your course of action with colleagues and peers also helps.
  5. Take your talents elsewhere. Honestly, life is too short and you have too much to offer. Go somewhere where you can feel like you can enable great leadership, instead of being in a state of fear of running afoul of a leader’s whims and tantrums.

Whether or not Amy Klobuchar deserves the recent bad press, let’s use this as a moment to shine a light on the detrimental affects of leaders behaving badly on both the people who work with them and on the organization at large.  I am all for high expectations and a firm hand, but most of us know sustained mistreatment when we see it.