The other day I met with a disgruntled employee. She had every reason to be unhappy. She’s been working tirelessly for an organization that has been in crisis for the last eight years. She regularly saves the day, by doing whatever needs to be done — but always late, always without enough money. Her goodwill is well nigh inexhaustible, which is good news for the company and perhaps bad news for her.
As a board member, I’m wary of these meetings. But I also recognize that knowing the truth about any organization is immensely difficult — for CEOs and company directors alike. I met with Janet because I feel a responsibility to know what is going on, and I feel a particular concern for women in an organization that’s not very female-friendly.
Janet’s source of unhappiness was the company’s CEO, who is out of his depth. That, in itself, isn’t unforgiveable — but he’s working very hard to disguise the fact. So he doesn’t do what he ought to do: surround himself with great people and ask for help. Instead, he tries to disguise his lack of competence and humiliates anyone he suspects of having rumbled him. Because Janet’s so capable, she catches a lot of his mistakes. He doesn’t like it — and she doesn’t like the punishment that inevitably follows.
I’ve been in Janet’s position before. More than once. It’s awful. The more competent she is, the worse it gets. Because she feels immense love and responsibility for her organization, she finds it impossible to be silent when she sees things going wrong — money wasted, decisions not taken, jobs not defined. She can’t stand watching all she’s worked for, and cares for, being weakened or destroyed by someone whose first concern is to cover his back. Janet’s working for a toxic boss and she thinks he should go.
She’s right, of course. And she’s wrong. She’s right that he ought to go. She’s wrong to agitate for it. In my experience (which is deeper in this area than I wish it were) employees can’t get rid of toxic bosses. If you try to, and you’re caught, you get fired. And it’s very hard not to get caught. How you feel is written all over your face, in every word you speak and in every email you write. This inflames the situation, polarizes relationships and leads to a show down that the employee can never, ever win.
So what should Janet do? First of all, she has to decide if it’s worth staying. This is a very personal decision. I know I’ve stayed in jobs too long, and become bitter and exhausted doing so. I’ve also stayed in toxic environments because there were people and projects I loved too much to walk away from. Both decisions, at the time, were the right ones. No one can know this but you.
If Janet decides to stay, she must seize the moral high ground and hang on to it for dear life. The more opaque he is, the more transparent she must be. The more he doesn’t document their meetings and discussions, the more fastidious she must be in doing so. She must never, ever confront her boss directly and never, ever make him look foolish in public. This will be very frustrating for her.
She must choose her battles and skip those in which she doesn’t have an immediate, direct interest. She must focus on her job and her job alone, and resist the temptation to get involved in everything she sees going wrong. “It’s not my problem,” must become her mantra. Demonstrable excellence in her own field is essential protection in a highly political environment.
She should keep a journal of any abuse she receives — including being excluded from relevant meetings, being lied to, abused, or humiliated. She should do this to keep herself sane and she should tell a trusted confidante (not in the company) in order to keep her perspective.
She needs to build up her power base: not those beneath her but those above her. She must find those who will blow her trumpet when she makes significant achievements; that way the CEO will know not to mess with her. To the degree that she can, she should attach herself to revenue streams that no one will want to jeopardize.
In other words — she must act as though her boss is never going to leave. Having decided to stay, she must be a pinnacle of excellence. And, if she can, every time her CEO does something smart (which he does, occasionally) she must praise him for it. He’ll find this confusing but it will make it clear that, however political the organization, her judgement is impeccable.
I’d love to get rid of Janet’s toxic boss for her. I thought he should go over a year ago. But the board is afraid to fire him, afraid of the chaos that would ensue. I think we’re committing ourselves to worse chaos for longer — but that’s a difference of philosophy. I like fixing problems fast; others like to watch solutions evolve. Most boards prefer to avoid drastic action that requires more work on their part.
So what will happen? I believe that, eventually, the toxic boss’s incompetence will reveal itself as the organization’s finances crumble. The board will act — but only when its actions are inevitable and unavoidable. When the board does act, Janet will still be there, her reputation more lustrous than ever.