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Recognising toxic leadership

Poor leadership contributes to disengagement and low productivity at the workplace

"I am opposed to a paternalistic approach to management. It may sound nice, but it's self-preserving at the expense of employees' growth...It looks caring, but it's selfish and toxic." - Author Jean-Francois Cousin (above)


SO what does a peace-loving elephant, an autocratic lion and an eager beaver have to do with toxic leadership? Plenty, said leadership coach and author Jean-Francois Cousin.

In his latest book Game Changers at the Circus, he tells a fable of animal leaders in a circus with toxic leadership styles who eventually got stirred into action to pull off the performance of a lifetime.

"The circus is a metaphor for the corporate place, but it's a joyous take on it, not a bitter one," explains Mr Cousin, who was previously a vice-president for cement company Lafarge, where he had worked for 15 years before becoming a leadership coach.

He points out that, just like the circus in the book, when there is disengagement and low productivity in the workplace, poor leadership often has "a lot do with it".

The biggest problem with leaders is that they do not give enough credit to their staff when it is due, he says.

"We all need a strong sense of self-worth… When people never say thank you, take time to praise, workers won't feel valued. People won't give their best if it's not recognised," he says.

Another mistake occurs when leaders treat subordinates like children, in what he calls a "parent-child relationship".

This form of toxic leadership style is exemplified in several of the animals in his book, such as the lion, the elephant and the beaver.

Mr Cousin explains that the lion manages by fear and punishment because he is worried someone will take his position, so he is not going to develop his cubs.

As for the elephant, the toxicity of her leadership style is much more insidious. She grooms her people without letting them take risks and overprotects them.

"It's very real in companies. It's toxic as a management style because it prevents people from growing as they are shielded from failure," says Mr Cousin.

Another animal mentioned in the book is the beaver, a micro-manager.

As the beaver is obsessed with perfection, her workers just wait on her orders and do as they are told. Again, it's a parent-child relationship that keeps employees disengaged and unproductive.

"I am opposed to a paternalistic approach to management. It may sound nice, but it's self-preserving at the expense of employees' growth. They pretend to take care of their people, so they secure their jobs as no one challenges them or can replace them. It looks caring, but it's selfish and toxic."

The very first thing leaders should do is to recognise and get rid of paternalistic styles of management. They do not help with productivity and engagement, and deprive employees to grow and learn from failure.

Next, leaders have to seek to be authentic and humble. "Apologise when you are wrong, ask for help if you don't know. This is contrary to the old leadership style where the leader is the one who knows best," he says.

The next step would be to lift up the people around them, both in terms of spirit and in capabilities.

Leaders have to spend one-on-one time with their direct subordinates.

Such quality time spent with them helps to develop their thinking, stretches them and moves them out of their comfort zone.

"In Asia, people are more subtle, and people don't give feedback in your face. However, when it comes to productivity and enforcing a culture of constructive feedback, it's a must," says Mr Cousin.

Constructive feedback and one-on-one time will help them remove the fear of failure.

He observes that many companies have staff with low engagement and initiative because people are afraid of punishment if mistakes are made.

Leaders also need to work on streamlining their processes and cascading decision-making to the lowest level possible.

"There is no need to wait for the big boss to decide if the managers know the situation better. Decisions can be made in two minutes, instead of two months going up to the CEO and back down."

After working in Asia for 20 over years, he has found that there are plenty of cultural assets here which leaders can leverage, such as an emphasis on success at work, thirst for learning, and a desire for harmonious relationships.

Asian leaders tend to develop and value relationships more and this is a trait which Western leaders often neglect when they fly over here for business, he observes.

However, authority in Asia is often based upon experience and seniority, rather than performance.

He recommends that Asian leaders who have neglected performance over maintaining harmonious relationships, to keep a critical balance between pushing for performance and building the relationship at the same time.

"My belief is that developing a leadership style based on Western and Asian practices will help. From what I've seen, when Asians set aside traditional rules of interaction during a crisis, they collaborate in a very impressive way," he concludes.

"If leaders make the effort to discipline themselves and grow their teams, I am optimistic that they can sustain performance at a high level and go on to greatness."