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Toxic CEO – 7 truths on dealing with them

There are many brands of toxic CEO.

Your toxic CEO could be a prima donna, a blocker, a cold fish, a lazy bastard or a landmine. There are as many types of toxic CEO as there are personality disorders, really! Before we even look at dealing with them, here’s a little encouragement for you. Remember that a toxic CEO most affects you when you are closer to the top of the ladder. It may not feel like it, but you are powerful in this organisation. That’s why you even care about this topic. Regardless of which type of toxic CEO we are dealing with, it will not be a pleasant experience and you will never make it so. A Toxic CEO affects your job, your career and how competent you feel. Here are some tips on navigating life with a Toxic CEO.

1. You are already contaminated

Firstly, do not kid yourself. Like a deadly disease, a Toxic CEO contaminates. As soon as that Toxic CEO hit your environment, you were contaminated.

Take Mark. He is a strong, kind and technically competent senior management accountant. When his boss was replaced with a Toxic CEO he wasn’t worried. His wife, an HR advisor, suggested that he may need to start working his networks to protect his position. Maybe do a little schmoozing to be in the right place with the new guy. Andrew refused. He said “I’m an ethical man, I don’t play politics”.

His boss executed some classic Toxic CEO moves. Every job got briefed to multiple people so they were obliged to play against each other (or constantly check if there was a duplicate job out there). The Toxic CEO assembled a coterie of sycophants, made decisions that contradicted his policies and blamed others for every problem. The Toxic CEO kicked down and kissed up.

To her credit, His wife didn’t say “I told you so”, as night after night Mark came home deflated, saddened by his boss’ behaviour. Then his pet project was cancelled with no rational explanation. Nothing could save him now. He was contaminated by the environment. His attitude grew more and more negative. Every problem became pervasive, permanent and personal. He was infected. The way he managed his team deteriorated. He couldn’t insulate them from the toxic fumes and he couldn’t save himself.

Because you’ve been contaminated your work life will never be the same. Whether you stay with this CEO for 3 weeks or 3 years, how you look at the world of work will change forever. Get used to it. A new regime, toxic or not, requires new approaches.

2. If you’re an idealist just leave now!

If you are an idealist then it’s probably best you move on as soon as you possibly can. It will get dirty, or at least Machiavellian from here on in if you are to survive and prosper.

Emma worked for the same Toxic CEO as Mark. She saw the writing on the wall. She stepped up efforts to find a new job, and was out in less than six weeks. She lived to tell the tale.

You can choose not to play the game at all. Emma’s three step approach was:

  • bring your CV up to date
  • work out how much money you have and how long you will survive with no money coming in
  • start talking to agencies, notify colleagues that you are looking and watch the jobsites.

3. Become an expert flatterer

If you are staying, and up to the challenge, then you must find better ways of working with the Toxic CEO. Review what you already know about influencing people, and apply it. Now. You have to get as far inside their heads as you can. And you must assume that what will the works for you will not necessarily work for them. Try new things till something works. Flattery is a great start. Researchers looking at flattery as an influencing tool have failed to find a point at which it doesn’t work. So let’s talk about effective ways to flatter. The most effective way to flatter is to know what your Toxic CEO values, and flatter them with that. Some influencing (and flattery) tools you may already have in your kitbag are the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI) and DiSC. Find out what your Toxic CEO’s type is and shamelessly use it. I’ve given you some starting points below. To flatter using the Myers-Briggs elements:

  • Tell an extrovert that they are delightfully interactive, but never talk too much
  • Allow an introvert to know how much you appreciate their considered, thoughtful answers, but that you never feel they are withholding anything
  • Sensates will feel good when you tell them they are practical, pragmatic and clear without being boring
  • Intuitors (Ns) love to be filled with ideas, but never ungrounded
  • Thinkers will be flattered by how rational and clear they are (but never unfair)
  • Praise feelers for their heart-based approached, without being too soft
  • Perceivers like that they are open to new ideas, but never flavour-of-the-month
  • Judgers are happy when you notice they finish things off without being controlling.

Try each type of flattery till you find the one that works, and then go read up more on the things that appeal to the button you have pushed. The Myers-Briggs model is very much richer than just these big picture ideas. These are just one-off ideas for an immensely useful body of work. And I apologise if your understanding of the model is deeper than these 8 lines imply. Please take the concept of using personality style to help you identify a valid form of flattery, and work with that. MBTI is just one model. If you know DiSC then you can do a similar thing with it:

  • Drivers like to know they get stuff done but are never overbearing
  • Influencers want to know that they are good with people without being shallow
  • Security/ Steady preferences like to know that you appreciate how well they listen without being indecisive
  • Conscientious / Compliant preferences can be flattered by complimenting their thoroughness, and they’re never too diligent

In the end I would never suggest that you be insincere. But being quick to compliment in a way that makes the Toxic CEO feel valued may help.

4. Don’t do a good job. Become indispensable

In a Toxic environment the normal rules do not apply:

Philip, another of Mark’s colleagues, hit the ground running with flattery, and followed up with toadying. He asked the Toxic CEO about his hobbies (philately and Twitter celebrities) and took them up. He set about inoculating his staff to protect them from the Toxic CEO. He battened down the information hatches.

None of his team were ever in contact with the Toxic CEO. Only Philip was. Philip became indispensable. This kind of practical politics may leave a bad taste in your mouth, as it does me. We need to distinguish between creating the behaviours we want the behaviours which will help us survive. In more than 25 years of observing organisational politics I have not seen anyone survive by playing nice full-time. When the Toxic CEO leaves or when you become CEO then you can play fair. Until then, make yourself indispensable, even if it means you withhold information and create a siege mentality in your area. Don’t do a good job. Become indispensable. And to take it one step further: help your Toxic CEO advance get them a new job!

5. Find the constraints

Whenever I ask any management team to define the word “strategy” the responses are similar, but no two answers matches exactly. You need to find out what your Toxic CEO means by whatever they say. It could be strategic decision-making, relentless execution, risk-savvy or something else. You need to unpack it so that you can provide what they are truly asking for and keep yourself safe. Here are some ways to do that.

  • organise an offsite and get them to give a presentation or answer questions. This will work if they are more extroverted or a primadonna. If they’re also paranoid have people pre-submit questions
  • if they’re a blocker organise an idea demolition session – get everyone to bring possible ways to achieve the organisational goals and let the Toxic CEO knock them down (make sure some of them are ridiculous, but some can be real)
  • if they’re more introverted get a journalist or a corporate writer to interview them and write it up. This gives them total control. Don’t interview them yourself because they will want to demolish whatever you write – but maybe you can sit in and help the journalist
  • take them to lunch frequently and learn the best ways to flatter them.

Your allies in this unpacking of meaning are your team and your colleagues. But they are only allies for action. Do not debrief, bitch or moan to them about the Toxic CEO. You will feel short-term comfort but nothing will change. And you expose yourself to possible betrayal from your colleagues.

6. Find someone to debrief with (hint: not a colleague or your life partner)

Working with a Toxic CEO is a traumatic experience. Like any trauma, you will feel better when you debrief. Get a business coach. You can try a therapist, but a business coach is more likely to understand the environment.

Alex’s therapist helped him get through his separation. So when his Toxic CEO moved in to the corner office he kept going to the same therapist. This was not his therapist’s normal territory. He changed to a business coach after listening to his therapist’s constant song that he should consider leaving corporate life and becoming an organic farmer like he always wanted to. He didn’t need that extra stress!

You wouldn’t ask your stockbroker for advice on your marriage. Don’t ask your relationship counselor for advice on working in a corporate environment. Choose the right professional

Angela engaged a business coach to help her outlast the Toxic CEO in her company. It began as a “let’s get through 6 months till they work out what the Toxic CEO is about”. It became a grueling 12 month marathon. After 12 months even the coach began to tell her it was time get on board or move on.

You need someone from outside your workplace to debrief with. Do not make the mistake of thinking a colleague can do it for you. Nor can your spouse, no matter skilled. Your spouse should be your supporter, not your coach. Don’t put them through that!

7. Trying harder will not work

And finally, trying harder and doing what you’ve always done will not work. Grab some political acumen, get someone to debrief with, make your team as effective as possible, do something differently. And keep that resume up to date so you always have an out.

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