A story from an audience member at a speech I gave last week has inspired a new series here on the ChangeYourTeam blog: How do I know when it’s time to quit.  In this series, I will briefly suspend the “change yourself and you can change your team” mantra that you have come to know me for.  In its place will be the strong and sober message that “life’s too short to work on a toxic team.” The series will provide a window into some of the conversations I have where my advice is “get out.”

So, back to the story that got it all started. At the end of my speech called “You First: Leadership, Teams, and Toxicity” a woman raised her hand to share the story of the new CEO she finds herself working for.  “We were told not to ask any questions of our new CEO. We were told that our job is managing down, not up.” Yikes.

Last Ditch Effort

Ok, I promised I was going to drop my can-do attitude, but I can’t incite you to leave without at least a few quick suggestions to see if you can make it better:

To add your full value, you need your boss to add his. If you aren’t getting the context, vision, and direction you need, ignore the “only speak when spoken to” rule and ask a few good questions. Try:

“Would you please share your mid-term vision and provide some context about how this initiative fits within it?”  

“What do you see as the three most important things we have to get right to execute on your plan?”

“What do you need from me?”  “How should I communicate with you on this?”

If you get good answers to these questions, the shtick about “managing up not down” is probably just hot air.  If the reaction to you asking a question is hostile, condescending, or if there are no answers forthcoming, proceed to Plan B—evacuate!

[If you are among the majority not working for the CEO, you have the added option of seeking help and support from your boss’ peers or manager.  I’ve written about how to work for an incompetent leader here.]

Parting Gift

Given that you’re going down, why not go down in a blaze of glory.  Take your new found liberation and say a few of the things that need to be said.  Don’t be bitter, don’t be nasty; just be constructive.  In this case, a conversation with the CEO and his henchman about the kind of value you and your teammates were missing is completely appropriate.

“When you give assignments to each team member separately, there is poor coordination and planning across the team and the result is that we duplicate efforts, take more time than required, and spend more money than we need to. A little time spent together coming to understand the situation would go a long way.”

In the vast majority of cases, a concerted effort on your part will change even a toxic team into a healthy and productive place to work. But let’s not kid ourselves, there are places where you just can’t move the needle enough to make it worth your while (or where moving the needle will take too high a toll on your wellbeing). In those cases, I say “if you can’t change your team, change your team!”


Last Note: If you are a leader feeling a little warm under the collar at the moment, it’s time for some serious soul searching about your obligation as a leader.  I highly recommend that you sign up for Dr. Vince Molinaro’s series: The Gut Check for Leaders. It will give you some important food for thought.

Further Reading

When your Team Needs a New Leader

Are you Working with a Toxic Team?

What I Learned from my Second Dysfunctional Team

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