From the internet to hundreds of consulting companies to countless magazines and conference keynote speeches, we are practically drowning in leadership advice. On the one hand this is a great thing, because there is good advice available in an almost limitless supply, if leaders are willing to listen. But we must also acknowledge a darker reality behind the existence of all of this advice: it exists because there is still a lot of poor leadership out there.
For employees who are victims of poor leadership, this presents serious difficulties. Poor leadership results in higher stress levels, and stress is something that is very difficult to leave at the office when you leave for the day. It tends to bleed over into family life. It results in health problems as employees suffer the physical effects of prolonged stress. It also results in decreased work quality and efficiency. Not to mention it is a huge risk to the business.
The reality is that poor leadership tends to get resolved on its own. Sometimes it is resolved quietly as that leader is either given the guidance and training they need to improve, or they are removed from their leadership position. Sometimes it isn’t resolved so quietly, as Travis Kalenick and the Board of Uber can testify. In worst cases, it’s resolved when the business implodes or is forced to shut down.
The question for employees in these types of environments is how to survive. If an employee was a direct victim of harassment, violence or other inexcusable behaviors, I feel that employee has a duty to bring that issue to light even if that requires going public with the problem. But what if the leadership problem does not involve outright illegal activities? What if the poor leadership is simply threatening the long-term survival of the organization in more benign but still harmful ways? Often the best advice for employees in that case is to survive while they attempt to change the situation either through improving leadership at their company or by removing themselves from that employer.
I would like to offer some advice for coping and surviving until better times arrive. This advice comes from my experience in a previous position with poor leadership.
Know that Poor Leaders Tend to Implode on Their Own: I once worked under an Org Leader who was very challenging. Within the course of a day the Org Leader could go from crying on my shoulder during staff meetings to raging about why a week-long project they had only told me about an hour before wasn’t done yet. The Org Leader’s instability had negative consequences for the staff, but also for the relationship between the organization and the governing body. From early on in my career at this organization, I knew there were problems ahead.
Be Observant: In an effort to try and determine the Org Leader’s moods so I could prepare myself for being on the receiving end of them, I began observing the Org Leader closely. Over time I noticed patterns that not only helped me prepare to deal with them, but as time passed I also noted that the Org Leader was beginning to suffer from what looked like stress. The longer this went on, the more erratic the behavior became.
Make a Plan: Knowing that this level of stress (both for the organization and for myself) was unsustainable, I began making plans to exit the organization. I updated my resume, professional profiles and began applying for positions. I worked with contacts from my previous internship position in an attempt to gain employment with the organization I had previously interned with. Simply having a plan and taking steps to execute it went a long way towards relieving the immense amount of stress that I was under.
Focus on non-work related things: I began to volunteer, not only with the organization I had interned with, but also locally within the community. These opportunities allowed me to learn new things, meet new people, and also to take my mind off of the chaos swirling around me at the office. Being able to focus on something other than the stress of work saved my health and my sanity. Focus on a hobby, find an organization to volunteer for or learn something new. Your sanity will thank you.
Know that you can only control your response: Take a page out of the Stoic Playbook and realize that you cannot control everything around you, you can only control your response to those events. As it became increasingly evident that issues between the Org Leader and the Governing Body were coming to a head, stress levels ratcheted up even higher. The Leader’s behavior became even more unpredictable and erratic, and the Leader actively tried to pressure me into taking their side in the fight. I would dearly have loved to try and control these events and prevent the blow up which I could clearly see coming, but viewing the situation from a Stoic perspective gave me the objectivity that I needed to navigate the perils of the situation without torpedoing my own career. I could see that the Org Leader was not going to be in that position much longer, which allowed me to not only prepare for that eventuality, it also gave me the strength to withstand the significant stress the final month or so brought to the workplace.
If you cannot change the situation from within, do not stay: In my case, I was able to ride out the implosion of the Org Leader and survive. If you think that you can spur change within an organization suffering from poor leadership, by all means try to do so. But if this is not the case, or if you have spent significant time trying to make changes with no discernible results, it is time to leave. The definition of a “significant” amount of time is up to you, but I would recommend no longer than one year. If you haven’t been able to effect any change after that amount of time, the odds that you will are practically zero. This is when you should make plans to leave the employer. Once your contingencies are in place (for example you have some savings built up and your resume and social profiles updated), start your under-the-radar job search so that you can move on to a better situation.
The bottom line is this: You should never forfeit your health, happiness and well-being to any employer, especially to one who would demand those things from you.