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Can lean management help with toxic managers?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Can lean help with toxic managers?

I don’t know, to be honest. We all know some bad managers, but what would be a toxic manager – i.e., someone we would not want to keep in the organization because of the damage they do regardless of where they are? On the Gemba, the cases I’ve seen of really destructive people tend to be different each in their own ways, so it’s hard to generalize. Going out on a limb to try to find some toxic behaviors common to all cases, I’d say:

  1. Endless feuding: needs to take charge, and then will always be right and never be wrong. Will not accept disagreement – or even questioning. Dissent is seen as disloyalty to be pursued vindictively, both publicly and in an underhanded way to do as much personal damage as possible.
  2. People are tools: no need for encouragement or understanding. Successes are taken for granted, no work is good enough, no moment is a victory to be recognized and savored, there is no possible success or approbation because that is all unnecessary sentimentalism. You do well but you’re just doing your job – which is to bring me the booty. You fail, it’s on your head, and you’re on your own.
  3. Window dressing and omertà: the mission doesn’t matter, all that counts is looking good, regardless of the situation. Objectives are rewritten to be surpassed, indicators are tweaked to be green when they are red (watermelon indicators: green outside, red inside), lying is part of the job, and absolute law of silence on what really goes on inside – loyalty demanded or else, no matter what.
  4. Jerk: claims successes from everybody’s work and spreads blame for his failings, attributing it to character defects in everyone around. Chastises people for their qualities, jokes about their defects. Liable to use personal information for leverage. These managers help themselves to resources and petty cash, and find ways to humiliate staff to “keep them in their place.”
  5. Surrounds himself/herself with a cadre of enforcers: To be really toxic, bad managers need to have some leadership ability to deliver short term results (if not they remain isolated malcontents). What makes a negative personality really toxic is the loyal cadre of enforcers they surround themselves with to apply their law and punish those who rock the boat.

Really toxic managers are not useless, and that is the heart of the matter. They’re usually pretty good at something, and they deliver a useful output to senior leaders, which is why they have and keep the job. They also know how to surround themselves with other negative people who they reward with spoils.

Lean is essentially a system to reveal problems. The jidoka principle means that if results backslide, we stop, look into it, and ask “why?” Healthy teams won’t beat themselves up about it and start discussing, observing, investigating and come up with a kaizen initiative. Other teams will just look at their shoes and keep mum – then we look to the manager. Why is the team not feeling safe enough to discuss the problem? Then again, smart toxic managers will learn to game the system.

It’s very easy to see a toxic manager when one works under their shadow, but much harder to spot from the top, from leadership positions, precisely because they’re so good at showing “results” and keeping everyone in line. From the boardroom, they can easily appear as take-charge, get-things-done people. As a leader, you know all people are flawed, and everyone has enemies – excellent managers as well (toxic managers, to start with, who feel threatened by people who deliver results the right way). Therefore, it’s really hard to figure out who’s who, particularly when we’re dealing with smart jerks: competent and with a good sense of arse-licking.

Lean is very clearly about developing people, on a foundation of mutual trust. The theory is explicit. On the Gemba, we look at people along two dimensions, a “T”:

  • Technical expertise, which can always be honed both in-depth and spread
  • Leadership ability, teamwork across borders and the ability to bring people on board

Lean companies have regular people reviews. At the management level, two things can be observed relatively objectively (relatively – people stuff is always subjective):

  1. Do they deliver outcomes? Is the area in their charge working the way it should be? Is it profitable? Are there opportunities for growth? Are we learning new things?
  2. Do they build relationships? Some people can step into a mess and calm things down. Others inherit a stable situation and immediately fires start popping up and conflicts flare up.

These two things are clearly observable, although the specific conditions are hard to see, so it’s always difficult to tell the person from their circumstances. The acid test of a manager is that they leave their area stronger than it was before.

But again, really toxic people can sometimes game this and make it appear so.

When someone struggles, we ask ourselves: 1/ do they know what they’re talking about and are they trying to learn more about it? 2/ can they bring other people to work with them and to feel engaged in doing so?

I remember the recent case of a frontline manager who the CEO had confidence in but when promoted to a different area was transformed. The manager couldn’t get anything done, became negative and passive-aggressive, and visibly didn’t feel good about themselves. The discussion then moved to:

  1. Personal: Is there something else going on in their lives that we don’t know about and is really screwing them up, such as illness, divorce, money problems, and so on?
  2. Poor leader: Are they mismanaged in some way by their own manager? What does their n+2 think?
  3. Bad apple: Is there someone negative in their team that ruins the entire team’s spirit?

As you can imagine, none of these things are easy to investigate without being intrusive. As a result, we tend to ask questions and watch and … do nothing until things are clearer. The downside is that when there is a problem, it sometimes takes longer to resolve than people on the ground need – they live with it every day.

In the previous case, the manager was saddled with a “bad apple” – a veteran, discontented worker who created a bad atmosphere with determined passive aggressiveness, to the point of sabotage, and who found a chink in the new manager’s armor that she herself didn’t know about – and got through to her. The situation eventually resolved itself when the bad apple left, but it really was not to anyone’s credit. The leaders knew about it, but being very reluctant to fire people, let the manager deal with it way too long.

Lean gets tricky because of two apparently conflicting instructions: “problems first,” and “mutual trust.”

“Problems first,” and “bad news first” is the sine qua non start to lean – without problem finding, we simply can’t progress (unless we’re lucky, which happens but is hardly a process). Problems first can be both brutal and upsetting, particularly when it’s a problem no one wants to look at because it has no obvious solution. The sensei tradition on problems first is a hard one, not to say a harsh one – but not mean. The aim is personal development.

“Mutual trust” is the foundation to all lean thinking, and without continuously working at mutual trust, people will hide problems, not reveal them. With practice, “problems first” and “mutual trust” converge and discussing problems within solid relationships becomes normal, even fun. One accepts that tempers flare, and people say things that they don’t mean, and it’s all ok – we’ll regroup, agree on the problem and work on solutions.

The rest of the lean system, the visual management, the pull system, the obeyas with their indicator cockpits and A3s, etc. are techniques to create the conditions of “problems first” and “mutual trust” and resolve tension into kaizen. Can it be gamed? Yes, absolutely. Some managers use the lean system against the system – to hide problems rather than reveal them, to stifle dissent rather than encourage speaking up.

Stealthy Jerks

Incompetent untrustworthy people will stick out like a sore thumb in lean, precisely because it is a demanding system. But smart jerks, not so much …Gemba walks and focusing on challenges make it harder to do, but still, it can happen – it’s the leadership role to constantly challenge and question what is being shown. What is harder to fake is people speaking up naturally. On the Gemba, some teams are happy to discuss anything while others remain strangely quiet. We always look at the manager then.

As far as I can tell, the lean position is that it’s okay to argue sometimes, to go through discomfort and challenge to grow – for short periods of time. It is absolutely not OK to slide into long periods of suffering and low morale. The difficult question for leaders is how to make the difference between the latter and the former, and how long is long.

In the end, the lean lesson is that your success depends on the success of people around you, just as sociology shows that your happiness first depends on the happiness of people around you. Toxic managers pull everyone down, and, yes, should not be allowed to thrive and prosper at the expense of the group. As most Gemba questions, the issue is: how do we spot them? Incompetent untrustworthy people will stick out like a sore thumb in lean, precisely because it is a demanding system. But smart jerks, not so much, and some might be gaming the system.

Which is why ultimately trust is what matters. Do you trust that person with sensitive information, or do you instinctively hold back? Do their co-workers trust them, or do you see them being careful? Some people can be prickly or difficult, and still completely trustworthy. Others can be smooth and suave and habitual backstabbers. How do we learn to see who is who?

Lean can help with toxic managers inasmuch as it is a system designed to reveal problems, and toxic managers will work hard at hiding them. But smart toxic people can also learn to game the lean system, to hide their failures and pass them on to someone else. Ultimately a method is just a method, and people are people. The lean system’s foundation is mutual trust, and it won’t work without it. It’s the leadership job to constantly look out for the trust dimension. We can get by with an average performer (aren’t we all average performers?) you can trust – not with a great performer you can’t trust. No easy answers.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Rick Bohan December 2, 2019

Good article.  Here's the thing...toxic management and a culture that supports lean can't co-exist.  One of them has to go.  If senior leadership is genuinely committed to lean practice and culture, it will send a clear message to "toxic managers" that it will be necessary for them to either change their approaches or to leave the organization.  

Ron Russell December 6, 2019

I think you've summarized some of the key behaviours of toxic people very well.  And I have seen all of those at play in a couple of toxic environments I've worked in.  In one case it was clearly the result of toxic leadership.  But in the other it was due to a toxic culture.  However, that culture was driven by these very same behaviors only they were manipulated by ''informal sources of power'' within the workplace.  In other words, employees that had developed influence with senior management through social contacts.  And if you happen to hold these employees to the same standards of accountability as everyone else...their fingers quickly pointed to toxic leadership.

An inventor named C.F. Kettering once famously said that ''A problem well stated, is a problem half-solved''.  I think that workplaces are much better at identifying unhealthy behaviors today, but I feel many organizations are still not able to identify the source of the workplace toxicity that created the unhealthy culture?  In other words, is  leadership the issue (and if so, at what level)?  Or is it employees with informal influence who are resistant to standardized expectations, performance, and accountability?

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