Some thoughts on toxic egos in leadership positions and how I fight them.
I stumbled on this article by the Harvard Business Review about how inflated egos are the enemies of good leadership, thanks to Konrad Weber’s Twitter feed. Although the report only scratches the surface of the issue, it made me think about my own experiences.
Especially as I work in the media industry, I encountered several times this phenomenon I call toxic egos or toxic leadership. It‘s characterized through apathy, rejection, and disruption of creative processes. Sometimes, these toxic egos show up in phrases like “We‘ve always done it this way” or “This won‘t work.”
If you work in the media business, you‘ve almost certainly experienced similar situations. Moreover, this can be very frustrating, even more, if a person makes these statements in a decision-making position.
At first, they seem appealing
I‘ve met toxic egos in senior leaders, growing up during the golden print era. But not exclusively. There are also leaders that acknowledge the importance of digital disruption but are not adapting to agile models. They still act, lead, and decide in an old-fashioned way. That means they still micro-manage their employees, reviewing every decision without any trust in the teams they‘re responsible.
You may shrug off the old-school leaders easily. However, the second group is way harder to deal with. They seem appealing at first because they are aware of the challenges ahead. However, over time a disillusionment sets in because they don‘t fulfill the leadership skills required to deal with the rapidly changing world.
My Guerilla strategy
If you‘re stuck with such a leader, there are merely two options: quit and look for another job. Alternatively, fight it. However, you have to fight smart — or you will burn out quickly.
So, I’m going to share my not at all scientifically grounded strategy for fighting smart:
I consider the lack of trust as the most crucial issue. As the Hard Business Review’s article describes, the toxic, inflated egos are fed by the employees “listening more attentively, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes.” According to the authors, these behaviors tickle the egos. Yes, we can maybe relate to that from our personal occurrences as well.
If you work for a long enough period with a micro-managing leader, you’ll feel the urge to approve every little decision with your leader. There are two reasons for that: First, you may get credit if your idea is good, and this tickles your ego too. Second, you’ll relief yourself from any responsibility if the project fails.
I fight that urge as often as I can. Many times, if I have to make a decision, there’s a little voice in my head that tells me: Run this by your superior. Don’t listen to it! Just do it!
Of course, you will have to stand trial if you’ll fail. I agree it takes some courage because there’s no one to protect you and nobody else to blame but yourself. Nevertheless, you will also learn from the mistakes, something you won’t do without the responsibility.
However, most importantly, if you prevail, you will steadily gain trust and respect by your leader. Because you won’t change someone’s mindset overnight, but step by step. If you’re not willing to risk the first step, there won’t be any change in the superior’s perception of your work. Ask yourself: Would you trust an employee that comes to you to double-check every decision he makes or would you consider it as a disturbance, as a waste of time?
I admit this strategy is some kind of a Guerilla tactic. It probably won’t work with a very stubborn leader. However, I think those toxic leaders aren’t toxic by default. They too feel pressure to meet their expectations. So they feel a similar urge to manage every detail. If you’re in charge, it’s also hard to let go.
Until now, I was successful with my strategy. I don’t know for sure, but I feel like my superiors also realized that I would ask them for advice or approval whenever I needed it. It created a trustful work environment that gave me some freedom and also lifted some weights of my superiors’ shoulders.