How to Handle a Toxic Project Leader

The question was,

So I have participated in a lot of college voluntary groups, and in some of them the manager, (or community manager or whatever the title of the person who is trying to coordinate the team would be) happened to be a rather poor leader, and/or encouraged unprofessional behaviors like commenting on some of the other members’ performance and personality traits behind their back. Naturally, most of the group’s members adopted this behavior too.

And as soon as things like that came to my attention, I immediately thought I should stop participating in those groups.

My question is, would there be any other way to potentially manage this kind of crisis as a member, or is deeming the group broken, and walking away the best course of action?

How can one deal with similar problems like these, even outside of voluntary groups and more like workplaces?

My reply (originally published on StackExchange):

Awesome, classic question, and one that will recur throughout your life and mine. Here’s an all-purpose patterned action you can take that will (a) grow your character, (b) give the toxic-behaving person the opening to redeem themselves, and (c) show you very quickly whether the place is salvageable.

How to Handle a Toxic Project Leader

Use the pattern “When you X, the meaning I make of it is Y, and that has impact Z. Would you be willing to change your behavior from X to something else?”

Here’s an example followed by ways to determine X, Y, and Z for your situation.

Gently and privately inform the person “Joe, when you say (insert direct negative quote here), the meaning I make of it is that you’re holding that person up for ridicule, and the impact I’m experiencing is that I feel embarrassed, ashamed of the group, and unwilling to participate… I also fear that this person will feel distress, and it’s possible your reputation may suffer. I’m likely to want to withdraw from the group if this continues. I don’t want to do that, as I’m sure you don’t either. You probably have no intention to make anyone feel bad, which is why I’m coming to you. Do you think you could change this behavior? How can I support you to do that?”

A clueless person who is toxic by lack of interpersonal skills will often be delighted that someone has arrived to help them navigate the waters of building relationships. I know because that was me three decades ago.

A committed toxic person will become angry, defensive, or will ridicule you. Cue your exit.

For more on this vital topic, I highly recommend the books “Crucial Conversations” (Second Edition) and “Toxic Workplace!“.

HOW TO DETERMINE X, Y, AND Z

When you use the above pattern, you must be very careful. For “X” you must use behaviors, not opinions. Behaviors are things that a video camera and microphone could pick up. “You interrupted me” is behavior; “you were disrespectful of me” is an opinion or interpretation. X must be behavior.

For “Y” you can use internal states of belief and emotion. You can even make yourself a little vulnerable here, which is disarming to a good person. Make sure to phrase all your conclusions as tentative — a TENTATIVE conclusion by you is still open to change by them, therefore you’re not an enemy, you’re open to being further informed and persuaded by them.

For “Z” you can mix physical or ‘provable’ impacts and subjective ones. Both “it makes me worry” and “it makes us late” are valid here, even though the first is clearly subjective and the second is possibly provable.

Good luck.

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