On Losing Customers and Employees via Toxic Leadership

I have had the pleasure of being led by a spectrum of different personalities in different fields of business. I’ve also always kept a close eye on the leaders of my colleagues and of companies that I frequent. There is one type of toxic leadership that, when it rears its ugly head, can not only completely demolish the unfortunate receiver of the toxic leadership conduct (an employee), but also the customer experience, both directly and indirectly.

Take a look at this clip from the movie Whiplash:

This scene in particular only gets more intense from there.

I happened to watch this film for the first time over this past weekend and it really struck a chord with me. Here are some personal stories in which I’ve been both a witness and a receiver of this leadership style and explain briefly the destructiveness of the behavior to a business.

Witnessing the Behavior at a Restaurant

One of my closest friends and I always used to frequent Olive Garden; it was a recurring occasion that I always looked forward to and as a young twenty-something trying to move up to a well-paying job, the price point for their lunch specials were right up our alley.

It was a normal, beautiful summer day and I was still as happy-go-lucky as I ever was. I looked forward my usual quick smile at the manager that was always there when we visited; he had such a friendly face. My friend and I bounced into the restaurant and the hostess trotted merrily as she led us to our table. I remember being starved after my long shift at a retail store and already salivating over the impending arrival of my usual dish. And then it happened.

As my friend turned the corner and I followed, I suddenly heard the angry, low growling voice of the manager being directed toward his employee for a mistake that she’d made. I slowed my pace but did not stop, not knowing whether or not I should or could do anything to help, and heard him berate her in front of a co-worker that was standing not more than 3 feet from her and in front of me. We sat down at our table and I continued to watch as he completed his verbal bashing for another minute before he walked off. The employee paused for a second, picked up the tea and walked over to her tables to carry on with her duties. I, regrettably, said nothing. I didn’t stand up for her nor she for herself and as such, I lost my appetite completely. That experience has always been burned into my memory.

I refused to go back to that Olive Garden and Olive Garden in general for a very long time. Witnessing this man and his toxic leadership style lost them a customer, but more importantly and sadly, contributed to a possibly broken spirit of a young female employee and was likely contributing to the destruction of that location’s employee culture. Although I won’t be able to speak for her, I can say that, ever since then, I have always made it a point to stand up for others who were recipients of this behavior. It turns out, however, standing up for someone else may be easier than standing up for one’s self.

Receiving the “Whiplash” Style of Leadership

By the time I became a receiver of this type of treatment, I had already completed my dual Master’s degrees in both Business and Human Resources. I had won awards for my contributions to the company I worked for and for the quality of my work. I had moved up the ladder by being poached by others who knew of how talented I was. I was the youngest in the organization to achieve that so quickly. Being older, wiser, and confident, I was ready to take on the world and jump into new opportunities as they came at me. What I wasn’t prepared for was the darker side of leadership. Having worked for some of the best leaders I could ever ask for, I was eventually thrown into completely unexpected situations. Now so aware of people’s behaviors and leadership due to my schooling, being a recipient of real-world toxic leadership became both fascinating and horrible at the same time. I “managed up” to try to help reduce the toxic leadership that I encountered, but even being open and willing to help didn’t stop the bad behavior.

One manager appeared to be very open to feedback and at least visibly portrayed empathy quite well. You know those “7 traits of a good leader” mantras that you see all over LinkedIn or Facebook? Like this one:

He followed those to a T. This guy was emotionally intelligent even, but in a calculated and selective way. He knew better, yet that did not keep him from toxic leadership. One of the traits that always seem to be missing from these mantras is actually having real, genuine respect for the employee. Managers can do all of the things above and have emotional intelligence all without having respect for us and the way in which we’re treated is the result of its absence.

I’d witnessed him talking about other employees behind their backs, taking joy in being able to manipulate them, even to the point that a departed employee had no chance of filing anything against him because the employee wasn’t proficient enough in English and didn’t (like many Americans) know his rights. Knowing that the man could and would do nothing, the manager took visible pride in knowing that he was (and still is) safely employed in his high-ranking position. I tried to help the man secretly over the course of a couple of months, but it was unsuccessful. This manager would blame me for problems that arose from his poor processes and lack of understanding and proceeded to mock me in our conversations. What was interesting is that he did it in such a way that he was able to cover up his remarks that made it hard to prove that it ever happened. He was smart and educated and I have found that those leaders are some of the most dangerous to an organization. When I was ready to step forward with this, I was guarded from higher authorities in the company. I felt powerless.

Another time, a manager was quite comfortable berating employees in front of others, myself included. The Whiplash clip above demonstrates his verbal behavior almost perfectly, portraying the embarrassment of being spoken to and berated like this in front of other employees and the shock of not knowing what to do or say. Like in the movie, the manager would act understanding at times and other times would deliver repeated verbal shots at me and other employees, making us feel like we were idiots. He’d use finite words that made us feel like what we knew wasn’t so. Making us doubt ourselves and our abilities. At times, it would continue for an hour or more. There was one occasion where the verbal attacks/embarrassments were so rough that, although I was able to maintain composure in the office, I cracked when I got in the car. Despite me knowing my talents and understanding that this was a toxic leader, despite me being a confident individual… I actually cried. I later laughed because I suddenly understood how bizarre the manager was; having silently evaluated and observed him over a few months, I could see right through him and his intimidation tactics. It was clear that he thought this type of behavior actually increased productivity, loyalty and credibility, just like the character in Whiplash.

The last encounter of toxic leadership that I’ll share is when I once had a manager hound me and contact me repeatedly in such a way that did qualify as harassment. He called me into a meeting in a room with just him, which was unusual and rare. He belittled me in the closed room for about 15 minutes and I was so stunned by the experience that it didn’t really affect my feelings. It was more like I was watching a movie and, instead of responding to him at all, I analyzed him and his behavior, categorizing him into a type of leader that I had studied and taking note of his gestures, posture and tone of voice. He was poised and I could tell he felt so powerful and so sure of himself by treating me this way. It was disgusting. I went home after work that day to calm down and prepared a script for myself with professional language, readily prepared to deliver it to him that would communicate that I wouldn’t tolerate that type of behavior. But the moment never came. As I said, being alone with him in a room was very uncommon and it was that much harder to get him alone. The time passed. I did eventually find the opportunity to bring it up to his superior but even he wrote it off as a fluke and nothing ever happened. Even that leader spoke ill of existing employees behind their backs. Even about me. If I felt powerless before by not being able to speak up to a higher authority, I sure felt powerless knowing that higher authorities protected their own and had similar types of behavior.

There are Type A’s that see this behavior as something to beat and as a trial that can be overcome, much like in the movie; they stick with it and try to ride out the storm or prove the person wrong. I have had that exact mentality for much of my life about many challenges, including in the stories above. What I have realized over my many interactions with leaders with this behavior over the past several years, however, is that allowing that behavior to continue does all others a disservice. It can really tear people apart; I’ve even encountered those who have become physically ill over time from staying employed with companies that have leaders that put their employees in these situations. Not all people in these situations can just decide to leave. They have bills to pay, a family to feed. It’s an interesting and unfortunate struggle to have with one’s self to decide speak up or do the right thing with the hope that the behavior stops.

Leaders with this leadership style lose employees, lose valued customers, deteriorate their company culture and decrease motivation of many. It costs a lot of money in turnover when an employee leaves, in lost productivity and even in insurance costs from those who begin to have ailments associated with being a recipient of this type of treatment. The effects of these leaders can cost more than $100k per employee, especially if the employee leaves.

Toxic leaders are expensive and can be very hard to catch. Executive Coaching is extremely helpful for many struggling leaders and occasionally do catch a toxic leader. That said, Executive Coaching does not catch all toxic leaders. Why? What is missed by Executive Coaches is the real world that they never get to see in the one-on-ones with these leaders. They aren’t there watching them interact with their employees. The majority of the managers that I spoke about above had Executive Coaches and it never stopped them from treating people poorly. To catch this behavior when employees can’t speak up for themselves, something else must be done. Talk to your employees and observe managers in your organization. Go outside of HR if you have to. Even if it takes someone external to do it secretly and to find the problem, do everything to make sure your employees are treated with respect and protect them from wrongdoing.

When looking at Customer Experience and retention of customers, don’t forget about leadership and leadership styles and how badly they can impact a business, a department, a team and an individual. Toxic leadership can occur at any level, in any industry and in any department — that even includes within HR.

If you are a business owner, make every effort to find this behavior and have a documented process with steps on how to stop it. If you are an employee experiencing it or someone witnessing it happen to someone else, reach out to HR, a coworker, a friend, a loved one or even a stranger to ask for help. Contact the EEOC to see if they can help. There are people out there ready to listen to you and help you stand up for yourself, just like I was able to.

Please share this post if you are willing to listen and help the individuals in your life that may be silently experiencing this. They will thank you for it.

Syndi Espinoza is a customer experience advocate, consultant & sales professional who helps others successfully transform their businesses.

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