Career Advice

How to Protect Your Team from Bullies & Bad Actors in Leadership

Too many professionals find themselves in the orbit of a challenging leader: the diva president, the bully executive director, the “handsy” founder. Usually these bad actors have great qualities too: She’s beloved by alumnae. He’s a stellar fundraiser. He built this business from the ground up.

Standout capabilities earned them leadership roles, but also made these faulty leaders feel entitled to enact unacceptable behavior patterns that the culture built itself around explaining away. But that doesn’t make it right.

If you discover a bad actor who’s found a place of prominence and refuge at your institution, it’s key to proceed with clarity and integrity.

Workplace safety is a right, not a perk

Employees don’t earn safety and respect once they succeed in their roles. Their employers owe them these essentials from day one. Heather Mercier, CFO and Head of Talent with ExpertVoice explains: “Not only do people need and want to feel safe at work, they deserve it — and if they don’t feel safe, they’ll find a place to work where they do.”

Nothing that an employee can do performance-wise justifies poor treatment. Making staff feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the workplace is not just inhumane, it’s poor management. The people who’ve entrusted an institution with their livelihoods deserve better.

If mistreatment has been historically tolerated, a high rate of turnover, especially in positions directly related to the bad actor, likely demonstrates this.

It’s not ok

A culture that allows a leader to act unprofessionally towards colleagues is simply unacceptable. No one’s successes, no matter how luminous, gives them license to impede on others’ basic rights.

If organizational leaders see this happening, it’s their responsibility to speak out. Mercier asserts: “So much damage is done when leaders see bad behavior and they either participate in or turn a blind eye to it. By idly standing by and not stopping it, you are effectively condoning it.”

Leadership matters. Those who are positioned to intervene have a responsibility to do so.

Strategizing Change

Leading a team in a culture that is tainted by a bad actor is a challenge that requires diligence and clarity. Leaders, in these cases have to be committed to endorsing and modeling a different mode altogether.

Mercier explains: “Leaders need to set a different example and commit to never participate in or lead with bad behavior. And leaders shouldn’t ever tolerate it. Not just within your team, but wherever it’s witnessed. No one buys into ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ A first step is to lead with the behavior you want to create a culture around.”

You may not be able to initially change the cultural fabric of the institution, but don’t lend it your verbal or non-verbal endorsement. Create a culture within your unit that adheres to your professional values. Be the unit that stands out for exhibiting different values. Others will take note.

Document. Report. Train.

If you see instances where employees are getting mistreated by leaders in your organization, document and report these instances. Talk with your HR partners. Express your concerns in writing. Make it clear that you will not uphold the institutional value placed on “this is how he or she is.”

Keep your door open to your team members’ concerns. Mercier advises, “Listen and care. . . [A]s a leader, you are your team. You need to protect, develop and care for them because you are nothing without them. You are buoyed up their greatness, and they grow and develop because of yours . . . If your team trusts your supportive leadership, and knows you have their back, they will simply roll with the punches that are thrown – from a bad actor or otherwise.”

It can also help to request institution-wide trainings that addresses the issues you observe-a session on bullying, harassment, etc. One of the best ways to challenge behavior that has been normalized is to revisit what constitutes “normal.” Training helps.

It’s also imperative to report any behaviors that you’re concerned crosses legal lines. Be in touch with HR partners about your responsibilities as far as proper reporting protocol.

Know when to walk

You can’t strong arm fit. If you find that your efforts to lead a thriving team are quashed by environmental pressures, you may not be able to make that work. Mercier notes, “If bad behavior is part of the culture and is inculcated, you as an individual within a broader ecosystem have to understand the goals and values of an organization. If those don’t align with yours, then you should find a better fit.”

This can be a disappointing leadership experience, but it stands to clarify your values-what you will put up with and what you won’t. Mercier advises: “If there are leaders within an organization that believe behavior is acceptable — even valuable — that doesn’t jive with your personal fabric, don’t force it. I don’t believe an individual should ever feel it is required to change who they are to fit with an organization. Long term, it isn’t sustainable.”

While this probably isn’t the leadership experience you were hoping for, getting through it will be a tremendous learning and growth experience. Growth can be messy and still be professionally valuable.

Just make sure to log your feedback via Glassdoor, once you’ve had some distance from your experience. Also, remember to make questions about turnover a staple for you future interview protocol. A high rate of turnover is always telling.

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