Treason or Good Management? How Officials React When the Boss Goes Rogue

Treason or Good Management? How Officials React When the Boss Goes Rogue
Bow to the toxic boss, or try to detoxify the organization?Tumisu

Lauchlan T. Munro

School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa

Should we be surprised that a senior official in the Trump administration has admitted to thwarting the president’s expressed wishes and intentions? I for one am not. Such behaviour is standard procedure when experienced and dedicated professionals are faced with a toxic or incompetent leader. I know this for a fact, since I have seen it three times in my career.

Many years ago, Albert Hirschman taught us that when faced with a decline in an organization, its members and clients had two basic options: exit and voice. You can abandon the organization (sell your shares, resign from your job) or you can try to save the organization by staying and voicing your concerns in a polite or less than polite manner. If the individual feels loyalty to the organization, the two basic options of exit and voice remain, but things get complicated. If you truly love your country, you may choose to work for a toxic, incompetent, or corrupt president precisely to ensure that “there are adults in the room” when important decisions get made. To exit in such circumstances can be an abrogation of duty.

In my case, toxic boss #1 was a respected scientist who had identified and named (after himself) a toxin that can prevent a tropical disease. Based on his scientific reputation, he was hired for a managerial job, even though he had no management experience. It quickly became apparent to everyone that the new boss was lazy, self-important, quixotic, chaotic, and uninterested in learning about the office he had just taken over. In a relatively informal organization where everyone was known by their first name, he insisted on being addressed as “Dr. L____,” even though the organization’s rules reserved the title “Dr.” for those from the medical profession. The staff quickly nicknamed him after the toxin that bears his name.

Dr. L’s decision-making was erratic and based on no discernible principles or strategy. Half-baked and crackpot ideas flowed from his desk, along with a few sensible ones that the office had already been implementing for years. When he happened on a good decision, that was what his subordinates chose to implement. If his often-porous memory did recall making the opposite decision, his subordinates steadfastly maintained that they had never heard him say it. Certain memos got lost.

Working for Dr. L required constant workarounds. He had a volatile temper, apparently linked to his blood sugar levels. His direct reports quickly learned what times of the day were best to approach him and which times were to be avoided. The management team (minus Dr. L) met every day on the fire escape, where the operations and supply officers smoked away their frustrations and the team exchanged information and plotted strategy. When one of us had a particularly rough encounter with Dr. L, a coded message went out for the management team to assemble for lunch at a nearby restaurant to vent and regroup. Eventually, our headquarters figured out that Dr. L was a disaster and removed him. When his replacement arrived, she took over an office that was still basically functional, despite three years of chaotic leadership.

Toxic boss #2 was a human rights lawyer who had advised her government for decades but who also had no management experience. She was then hired to direct the policy and planning division of an international agency. Her dedication to human rights had an evangelical fervour, and she and her coterie were sometimes referred to as the “Ayatollahs of human rights.” She struggled to understand professionals trained in any field other than law. Since her division was full of economists, statisticians, epidemiologists, and management specialists, this was a major problem. She would lecture and hector, but not listen. She thwarted her subordinates’ travel plans and ignored them when they were in the office.

The sign outside her office said simply “There are no small rights,” implying that one cannot prioritize any human right over another. But her division was responsible for writing the organization’s strategic plan, which meant setting priorities. Problem was, our boss simply could not set priorities; everything was important. Her subordinates routinely bypassed her, working with allies in other divisions and the executive office. The strategic plan went to the executive board without her approval. The board approved the plan.

Toxic boss #3 was a fine orator but also a poor listener. He liked to curry favour with outside stakeholders by doing them favours, claiming he was building external support for the organization. But the result was a massive increase in workload for certain units and stressed-out staff. Two of his initiatives backfired and almost killed the organization; his subordinates spent months in damage control. I don’t think he realized how precarious the situation had become. When advised to change his ways, he was dismissive, even angry.

When the crunch came, the outside stakeholders he had cultivated were powerless or absent. Since he had announced in the third year of his mandate that he would not seek a second five-year term, he made himself a lame duck. Staff hunkered down and resolved to wait things out. Senior managers started to use terms like “rag the puck.” The organization survived.

In all these cases, officials who had been with the organization much longer than the new boss did what they could to keep the organization running. This is both an organizational reflex (organizations want to continue existing) and a manifestation of loyalty by individuals dedicated to some higher ideal than the whims of a toxic boss. Albert Hirschman would be proud of them. When a toxic boss cries “treason,” just rag the puck.

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