When you cross paths with a rattlesnake out in the desert, it is really scary. You fear the fangs, the venom and the damage they can do. When you hear the rattle, they are ready to strike. Sometimes it’s already too late. If not, you have to quickly recognize the danger and evade it.
Toxic leaders are like rattlesnakes.
Workplace snakes are just as venomous and toxic as the slithering variety found in nature. Like a rattlesnake, toxic leaders give signals, evident in their communications, you should watch out for before they strike.
Know the signs so you can evade and repel workplace snakes.
Here are some types of workplace snakes and the communications signals you should look for before they strike:
The I’m Too Busy for You Snake that uses busyness for defense and offense. This is especially true when a leader implies you might be the cause of their busy problem when you bring them an important issue or opportunity. They are using busyness to keep you from their cozy nest. They hide from people and expectations. To the snake, having to take responsibility for an issue or opportunity is an enemy that needs to be attacked with busyness.
Snake Signals: Significant levels of disengagement, can’t get on their schedules, don’t return calls or emails, talking constantly about busyness and issuing edicts that make them less approachable.
The Blame Gamer, Spotlight-Needy Snake that points fingers (or whatever snakes point), casts blame on others and takes undue credit. They have enormous egos combined with sweeping insecurities. These leaders are like the king cobra of workplace snakes. Look for the puffed up, hissing leader creating smoke and mirrors in an attempt to make themselves look good, while making others look bad.
Snake signals: Throwing team members under the bus, owning team members’ accomplishments, desperate to be noticed, demanding a “gold star” for everything, identifying other team members as “causes” and stating “the real problem in our organization is communications” (meaning the function not the skills).
The Liar, Ethically-Challenged Snake that, well, lies and has a loose relationship with ethics and values. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Those team members that are most at risk from the venom of these snakes are spokespersons, or represent some other kind of relay point for potential lies or unethical deeds. Beware of the signals because these snakes are not only culture killers — they can be a career killer.
Snake signals: Comfortable lying, lying for self-preservation, thinking a lie is a white lie and therefore doing the right thing, passing off lies as mistakes or inaccuracies, creating a sacrificial lamb, blocking team members from talking to authority figures, carrying vendettas and rationalizing bad behaviors.
The Performance Evaluation As Punishment Snake that uses the talent development process as a tool to put transgressors in their place and punish those who aren’t on board with their agenda. This is a weapon of deflection to cull out team members the snake doesn’t like or sees as threatening survival.
Snake signals: Conducts a performance evaluation in a public place or even by phone (yes, this actually happens), makes it personal with commentary on personality and likability rather than results, refers to what other team members think of the person being reviewed, has favorites on the team, has impossible expectations and creates no-win situations, is mean-spirited in reviews, and includes backhanded compliments as strengths.
The Loyalty Is Everything Snake wards off the consequences of bad behaviors and poor communications by commanding absolute loyalty from their teams. These snakes are blocking transparency. They live under rocks hoping that the sun won’t shine on what they say and do. Loyal team members are the blackout shades that can keep others from seeing the truth.
Snake signals: A close circle of confidants, a fear among team members of saying the wrong thing, limited communications about the team’s activities, a lot of misdirection communications going on (hey, look over here instead of looking over there) and extreme jockeying for position among team members.
Healthy organizational cultures don’t tolerate workplace snakes. Leaders of healthy, positive cultures ensure the values foundation is solid and woven throughout the organization. Leaders of healthy cultures ensure the talent review, people development, rewards and recognition are fair and focused on actual performance, not likability/popularity/personality. Leaders of healthy cultures support and cultivate transparent, direct communications throughout the organization and all teams. These basic structures work together to act as a form of snake repellent. Ultimately, we are all happier, more productive and more secure in a snake-free workplace.