Ray Tiller

Equipping Christian Schools is dedicated to assist Christian school boards, leaders and teachers to develop the Christian perspectives, values, and skills needed to pursue their mission of effective Christian education.

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Toxic workplace? What to do if one of the leaders under me is being toxic.

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Advice to senior leaders and boards who are struggling with how to address complaints from staff about their treatment by their leaders:

Maybe you are a board chair and you have concerns about your principal because you keep hearing complaints or concerns from staff.  Or maybe you are the principal and one of your middle managers is the subject of a lot of complaints or chagrin.  You will most likely be likely be seeing some of the following “symptoms”:

  • Complaints from staff such as:  “I feel humiliated by this leader’s treatment of me”;  “I feel negative about going to work each day”;  “I try to avoid this leader”;  “I have lost my ‘creative spark’ in my work”

  • Increase in sick days, especially for emotional reasons.
  • Declining staff morale
  • Tendency of staff to grumble, gossip and sabotage instead of being proactive to fix issues.
  • Declining productivity
  • An increasing loss of school culture and the staff’s loss of the sense of identification and alignment with the school and its mission.
  • Talented people are talking about leaving
  • Staff are joining the union because they no longer trust the leaders, saying “the leaders don't appear to be interested in my well-being!”
  • And in all this, the leader in question is probably frustrated because he/she knows things are not going well.

As a senior leader or board chair, if you have ticked a few of the above statements, you can, and should, do something about it.  I recommend the following actions as some keys to help you clean up the toxicity of this leader’s influence in the work environment.  (Please contact me if you require assistance with any or all aspects of this process):  

1. Do the research:  You need to ask the right questions of a broad range of people in the staff (and possibly more broadly in the school community).  Allow them the freedom, without judgement or consequence, to tell their stories and air their concerns.  Not everyone’s story will be objective (or free of venom!), but by hearing a broad range of people, you will get a pretty good idea of whether something is really happening to cause people to feel badly about leadership. In doing this research, you may like to refer to the following collection of statements by employees typically negatively affected by abrasive leadership.  Click here to download it.  

2. Summarise the key concerns:  Make a document containing a list of the key issues and the leader’s actions that people are feeling badly about.  (Be careful not to make a list of “charges” and “evidence” against the leader as if you were preparing for a “legal” argument.)  Your intention at this point is just to identify the effect of this leader’s actions on the morale, well-being, and confidence of the staff.   

3. Assure key people that you take their concerns seriously and that action is being taken:  It is important that you move early to gain the confidence of key people in the school community that you will not “brush their concerns under the carpet”.  You must assure them that you regard as unacceptable any action by a leader that causes emotional distress and injury to staff members. Give people assurance that they can feel safe in your organization, not “trapped” by feeling helpless to deal with issues that are causing them distress.

4. Review (or establish) your school’s code of conduct:  If you haven’t already got a code of conduct, you should write down the key broad expectations that you have of the way people treat each other in your workplace.  This document will help you in the next step when you share your summary of key concerns with the leader in question.

5. Meet with the leader in question:  It is time to put the issues of concern “on the table” with the leader.  He/she must be helped to see that some aspects of his/her leadership actions are producing negative effects on the emotional well-being and energy of some of his/her staff.  It is critical that you avoid getting into a discussion about “proving” or “disproving” the details and “facts” about the complaints that you have heard.  Acknowledge upfront that some of what you have heard is probably “jaundiced”, but insist that the one “fact” that you are absolutely convinced about is that a substantial number of people are feeling badly about the leader’s actions and attitude, and that needs to be addressed.  [Laura Crawshaw, in her book “Taming the Abrasive Manager” says “What counts (in confronting the leader in question) is the undeniable, unavoidable, incontestable fact that coworkers feel wounded by the abrasive boss, a boss who leaves a trail of tears, a beaten path of bruises, a wake of wounds.” (p 135)]  Click here to find reference to this book.  

6. Set some goals and an action plan to address the issues of concern:  At this point someone needs to turn each of the concerns into an objectively stated set of developmental goals and action plans.  Click here to see an example of such a document produced for a school board for their principal.   

7. Consider engaging a coach for the leader in question:  An outside, objective and skilled professional will take the pressure off the local leaders and board in helping the leader through the process of restoration and growth.

8. Set a schedule for accountability and reassessment of the issues of concern:  Please don’t assume that the confrontation, discussion, and nice plans will change anything.  When leaders have the tendency to be abrasive, there is a deep-seated reason that will need long-term sustained, deliberate, accountable action and support.  You will need to set regular due dates for the tasks in the action plan, have a point of reporting and accountability, and then set a date for a reassessment of the issues of concern.  

9. If all else fails …:  Not every toxic leadership issue can be fixed.  Be sensible – if it doesn’t come into line in the time frame that you have made in the action plan, do the right (and maybe awfully difficult) thing and move to part ways with the leader – better for everyone concerned in the long-run!!  

How can Equipping Christian Schools help you?

If you are feeling that you would like to see some changes in this aspect of your school, you may like to look at the following services offered by Equipping Christian Schools:

Management of the process of dealing with toxic leadership:

Equipping Christian Schools can work with senior leaders or board to manage the whole process as described above from review of people’s feelings, summarising the concerns, meeting with the leader, setting development goals and action plans, and accountability and coaching processes. To discuss how we might help you, contact Ray Tiller on 0409646279 or ray@raytiller.com.au

Review of your school’s leadership

We can do a thorough review of the effectiveness and effects leadership in your organization, and then make recommendations for improvement.  Click here for more info, or contact Ray Tiller on 0409646279 or ray@raytiller.com.au

“The Genius of Jesus in Leadership”

This program is a series of 7 seminar/workshop sessions designed to help leaders develop a theory and practice that is consistent with Jesus’ “servant leadership” paradigm.  This program can be offered online in a series of 7 weekly single-session “webinars” from 23rd July to 10th Sept. Or you can do a 2-day intensive in Melbourne 21st & 22nd August).  Click here for more info & registration for either mode, or contact Ray Tiller on 0409646279 or ray@raytiller.com.au.  If none of these suit your school, we can do a tailor-made program for your school/cluster.

Some resources to help you:

If you feel you would like to read more about aspects of what has been discussed in this blog, I can recommend a few excellent texts.  Click here to see my summaries and recommendations.

​Ray Tiller developed a Professional Learning Program for the college which facilitated a systematic and wide ranging program of review and development for all teaching staff...

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