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November 2016
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The Public Manager

Cleaning Up Organizational Toxicity Mess

When an ineffective leader leaves, organizations may need time to find their footing again.

Many organizations, perhaps more than we want to admit, are in the unfortunate position of having leaders in charge who create a less-than-optimal work environment. In extreme cases, these leaders border on narcissistic. The impact on the organization, its people, and its ability to accomplish the mission is strained at best. At worst, the organizational effectiveness reaches a full stop.

Some in the agency may stay the course and attempt positive confrontation, coopting or even engaging the leader in hopes of reaching a common understanding and salvaging positive working relationships. Other team members choose to check out both mentally and physically from the toxic work environment and seek employment elsewhere. One thing is for sure, the institution itself pays a price for the poisonous residue of poor leadership.

But what happens when the ineffective leader finally departs? With a barren, lifeless landscape left in his or her wake, the organization may show few signs of life. And the sad fact is that organizational healing doesn't happen right away. It takes time and attention. The good news is institutions can tackle the challenge of recovery in a very real and deliberate way by following a few simple steps. The ground may not be fertile for immediate growth, but with a little time and attention, the organizational health can indeed be restored.

Listen to the Sound of Silence

The presence of poor leadership can drive agencies to extraordinary silence. This changes little when the leader departs. Instead of filling the void with unnecessary chatter, organizations should allow for the space to simply listen. Silence may be the norm for a short period, but as time passes, staff will be willing to share their emotions and begin building bridges of trust.

Address the Elephant

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Staff have a deep curiosity about organizational occurrences, especially traumatic ones. Don't shy away from creating forums where open and honest discussion can take place. Address the "why" and "how" of the recent events. Be open about the incidents leading to the departure of the narcissistic leader and welcome the feelings and frustrations of the team. Reflective and humble inquiry can go a long way in laying the foundation for sound communication.

Get the Right People on the Bus

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Find individuals in the organization who can promote the compassionate environment necessary for organizational healing. These people are likely the ones who have unique interpersonal skills and have survived prior self-absorbed leaders. Rank and status matters not for these folks—it's about relationships.

No More "Just Because"

Agencies may find a feeling of perceived safety by attempting a return to the way things were done in the past. Procedures and practices grounded in years of repetition may provide some comfort. But this artificial coziness is short-lived. Use the departure of a poor leader to gather ideas from all levels of the organization and implement innovative practices.

Return to the Values

High-performing organizations are bound by common values. Rediscover the mission and values of the agency through dialogue at all levels. Information systems professionals at Housing and Urban Development may write software, but they really put families in homes. Human resource professionals at Washington Headquarters Service may oversee personnel functions, but they really protect our nation. Make this connection.

Sadly, even the finest of our federal agencies may fall prey to the organizational toxins produced by poor leaders. And while their impact may be felt on many fronts (damaged trust, impaired communication, and fear), the good news is many of these leaders eventually leave. When this occurs, their departure offers hope and a new opportunity for organizational renewal. By rebuilding the poisoned culture to create more inclusive, engaging workplaces, federal agencies improve their capacity to serve the public with passion and commitment.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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