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September 21, 2023

Do You Need to Detox From Toxic Leaders?

You may not have heard of the term “toxic leadership” but my guess is that most, if not all, have experienced it.

You may not have heard of the term “toxic leadership” but my guess is that most, if not all, have experienced it.  In the words of Stanford professor Bob Sutton, toxic leaders show up in the workplace as assholes.

In his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Sutton offers readers two tests to distinguish if your boss is toxic.

  • Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person?
  • Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

It doesn’t take any prep time to pass those tests.  Assholes are abound in organizations and public accounting is not exempt.  I’d even argue that public accounting firms are more likely to have a greater number of assholes because the conditions are ripe for toxic leaders.  

The hours can be long and oppressive.   You studied hard and were attracted to a salary greater than all the business majors, only to later realize at times your hourly rate is closer to minimum wage.  When you have to work long hours, it can be a challenge to maintain elements of life that energize you — such as exercise, nutrition, friendships, relationships — so depletion and burn out are the norm rather than the exception.  And then there are the power dynamics that play out simply because of the structure of the organization. A matrix reporting environment makes it hard to track accountability (aside from the almighty dollar) or to distinguish who is generating success and who is making a mess.  And like tenure, once a person passes into the pearly gates of partnership, they might act as if they are untouchable and cast out their venom to those below them in the pecking order.    

Once you realize that you are, indeed, working with a toxic leader, then what?  Of course you can come here and anonymously bitch on a discussion thread.  That might make you feel good for a minute, but the feelings of joy may soon dissipate.  And then what?  I am all for responsibility and each person being a stand for their own happiness and success.  It is ultimately up to you to stand up to the toxic person or get out.  How do you manage working with a toxic leader?  Bob has some tips if you don’t know what to do.

I also have some ideas for how to create a shift in the entire profession, and I am curious what you might see that I don’t.  One I see the opportunity for something different is through education.   Accounting education is often overridden by what we have to learn instead of the things we want or need to learn about.  What is more valuable: seeing the fraud triangle every other year or learning what causes unhealthy motivations in a leader?  Where is the cost benefit analysis of keeping around people who bring in a lot of business but destroy productivity and kill morale?  Or, in the case of your clients, why don’t we examine the connection between toxic leaders and fraudulent activities?  If we know what toxic leadership is, then we can do something when we see it.

Another wild idea I have is to divvy up the partnership pie even further and start running firms more like a cooperative, where everyone can buy in thereby creating a true partnership. It is wild, I know.  But I also know I hate hearing partner comments like “we need the staff to act like business owners” when they simply aren’t.  The cooperative model can be done.  There is a whole region of Spain that has successfully used it to create flourishing businesses.  

I am curious what you can identify.  My sense is we can all agree that toxic leaders are rampant.  But what can you see as the possibilities to clean it up the mess?  

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