Friday, July 16, 2010

Toxic People Curve

Here's a problem - when you're dealing with a toxic person, especially when managing a toxic person, there is the illusion that some coaching will change things and we can get on with life. Unless the toxic person is off the charts, most of these people have some very good skills that we'd kind of like to keep. So we'll send them to a conflict resolution class and move on. The problem is that these people may require way, way more energy that we think.

Seth Godin nails this: the gap between the toxic person and other people is huge, a vertical cliff. The angry person isn't just like you but angry, their in a class by themselves. See Seth's blog posting on this. We can't just send them to a class. If you have one who works for you, then giving them immediate feedback is important and be prepared for late stage coaching (i.e. get ready to fire them). If you work for one, realize that hope is not right around the corner. Start looking for another job.

Like Seth says, there are too many people who are way easier to work with. Go work with them.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Toxic Team Lead

There's nothing worse than a toxic boss, team lead, or project manager. Their presence on the team impacts home life, team productivity, people's health, etc. Here are some tips for dealing with one:

Tell you spouse: let your spouse know what's going on. The toxic lead is going to have an impact for a long time, so be prepared by starting at home.

Leave it at the office: this is super hard, but you need to protect your family. Don't sit and spin on the situation or a conversation. The temptation is to sit and replay situations and conversations - don't. If you need to write your thoughts down, great, but get it out of your head. Don't wake up with the situation in your head. What you go to bed with is what you'll wake up with. Focus on your wife, your faith - anything else, but not them. Make a pact with yourself - they will not hold you hostage.

Self assessment: there are times when we contribute to the toxic relationship to varying degrees. This can be due to communication style, confusion over roles, or maybe you're just not doing your job. It's time to be honest. Make sure you're not toxic and this lead is trying to protect themselves.

Get feedback: if you can get feedback from other stakeholders - find out if they think you're doing your job. Sometimes people have a skills center manager and may have an opportunity to get a quarterly or mid year assessment. This is a good way to gauge if you're contributing to the problem.

It's not you: you can walk away from a conversation (or battle) with your team lead and feel like crap, feel like you're a looser, have failed, and on it goes. You are a valuable contributor to your organization - you have skills and ability. You are important. Don't let them define who you are.

Don't gossip with co-workers: the temptation is to get your buddies together and say 'man, you should see what she did today...' - it'll feel good, but it's unprofessional.

Be clear about roles: part of the problem with a toxic lead is that they may think they can give you direction on things that their not responsible for. Matrix organizations can really add to the problem here. Be sure you know who is supposed to give you direction. Know who is in the food chain - you may have to go to the person who is giving you direction and their team lead and get their help in resolving the confusion.

Short answers: the more you give to a toxic lead, the worse things can get. Yes, no, and clarifying statements about tasks are best.

Prep, prep, prep: I had one toxic lead who loved to dig and pick. When I spent the time to get the work product in order, had it peer reviewed and had really thought through it, things went much better. You'd like to think you can work questions out or details with the team lead, but not when their toxic.

Communication style: remember that your lead may have a communication style that their not even aware of and may be the opposite of yours. Your lead may be very commanding and you may be very conversational. Learn to communicate in their style.

Your words: be polite and don't let anger in. You may be flustered in the conversation and afterwards wish you had said this or that. Don't dwell on it. There are usually (or always) better things to say, but there are no magic words that will shut the lead down or make them into a nice person. Ain't going to happen. Drive on.

The system is staked against you: Remember the conversations are going to be stacked against you. They have the role power and they probably got to their position because their a good talker. Unless you're really good at this kind of dueling, you'll probably walk away from the conversations thinking you lost and didn't say the right stuff. Be okay with that. Focus forward.

Stay focused on task: know what your tasks are, when their due, and what the closure criteria. If you can't get these, establish your own and work to that. If you have to establish your own, be aggressive. At the end of the day the only thing that will matter is: did you get your task done and did you do it well.

Your probably being setup: when they talk to you, they maybe taking notes on what you've been assigned and did you do it. They'll ask loaded questions - don't get sucked in. The temptation is to push back and do 'passive aggressive'. He or she is waiting for that and will nail you on it.

Take notes: if they tell you to do something, accuse you, etc. keep a log. You may be asked at some point to provide input - chances are if you're having problems, other people are having problems and HR may be a phone call away from getting involved.

Get help: is there someone who can counsel you through this and provide some air cover? Be careful not to gossip with them or dump on them. Their not there to carry your load, but they can help.

Lead emoting: you're team lead may emotionally dump (or vomit) on you. You'll probably come away from the conversation thinking, "what the heck did they want me to say?!?". These kind of conversations are very hard - they create a story where things are very bad, they can't do anything, and look at all the things you did wrong. Then they expect to have a dialog. Don't dialog. Say, "thanks for the feedback, let me think about what you've said." You may even ask if there's something specific they want you to do.

Exit strategy: Get your resume up to date: it may be time to move on. Sometimes these situations can be waited out - the lead is a climber and will be on to the next assignment, maybe the project has a deadline coming up and people will move on, etc. Be realistic and start the process for finding something else.

Don't play the game: you may try and get clever about word games and situations - don't. And don't be looking for vengeance. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord"

Get exercise: I'm going to sound like your mother here, but get exercise to burn off the tension, and loosen up. Eat right (stay away from alcohol, sugar, etc), take extra multi-vitamins and get enough sleep. Your health will take a hit at this time, so take care of yourself. This is an emotional endurance race and endurance athletes know they need to take in extra nutrition or they'll bonk. You don't want to emotionally bonk.

These are hard times and you'll need a cool head. There are probably a lot of reasons someone in leadership is toxic, but it's probably because they have tied role power to who they are. That's a dangerous tie and a no win situation.

I once heard a biologist talk about the ebola virus - fearsome, terrible, deadly. The problem is that it kills the host that it needs and eventually dies out. There is not much ebola around because it kills the things it needs to efficiently and quickly. You may think your toxic lead is better at the game than you and you're probably right. Their destroying the organizations and teams they work with, and sadder still is that they may be destroying their families. Think of what their kids have to live with. Very sad. You're toxic lead will burn out and fail - no question.

You know what? Their ship will sink and they will be part of the dark legacy that every organization has. I mean really, who wants that?!? It may be a rough spot on your career path that causes you pain and even to uproot and move, but time will wash them away and there will be too many good people to work for and with in the future.

Hang in there, I know what you're going through - you'll make it