June 8, 2015  • Arts Orgs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn our first post in this three-part series, we talked about the first bad habit we see in arts organizations: The failure to connect expending limited resources to strategic mission. (Lolly Daskal’s article from Inc., 8 Deadly Ways to Kill Employee Motivation” inspired this series.) This week’s bad habit is even worse.


Bad Habit #2: Inability to Corral Toxic People (Or Those With Excessive Enthusiasm)

I have very little tolerance for toxic people. And as I age I’m becoming less and less tolerant of them. Really, who has the time? Daskal calls these people “destructive and exhausting” and I suspect if you can’t name them within your organization, you may be the culprit.


But here’s the thing: Toxic people can manifest themselves in a number of different ways, some more manageable than others. I’ve seen three in particular time and time again… Presented here in increasing order of toxicity.


The Excessively Enthusiastic Newbie

Has your organization ever hired someone with such excessive enthusiasm you wanted to fire her immediately? (Or worse?)


I get it. But she is one of those benign toxic people who can be managed effectively.


Perhaps you know her well. She may be frustrated by the lack of immediate change in response to a perceived problem; she may be eager to solve every problem the organization has quickly; she my have very specific ideas for solutions to certain problems, based on her experience, her expertise, or simply her intuition.


Her toxic enthusiasm comes from a really good place: She loves the organization and she has a burning (over-burning?) desire to see it succeed.


Mentor her. Help her place her concerns within the larger context of the organization. Help her understand the benefits of playing a long (sometimes very long) game. Commiserate with her. (You may have been toxically enthusiastic at one point too.)


But don’t give up on her. She may become one of your organization’s best advocates.


The Long-Term Sufferer

Have you ever uttered, often by way of excusing inexcusable behavior, “But she has done so much for the organization!”


Then you know a toxic long-term sufferer. Often these people have considerable longevity with an organization. They may be long-serving board members, they may be the most veteran mid-level employees, or they may even be part of the founding team.


Such longevity unequivocally earns these employees the respect of their peers. It should also earn them considerable deference to their experiences. After all, who knows better the sordid details behind funding scandals of yesteryear, the best ways to navigate a political minefield on the board of trustees, or the real reasons why a project may not have been successful?


But their longevity does not earn them a free pass. They have earned respect, they have earned deference, and they have earned a valuable spot within the organization. But that valuable spot doesn’t have to wreck havoc on the organization’s growth.


If your long-term sufferer is getting in the way of new funding requests (perhaps because she cannot let go of offenses of a previous era), she needs a new role. If she is critical of the artistic direction of the organization (perhaps because she is feeling pushed aside), she needs to become a figurehead, probably with a bit of public acknowledgement. If he is resistant to growth, or new technology, or reaching new markets for audience members or funders because that wasn’t part of the original plan, he needs a long lunch with a bit of idea sharing.


Because of the long-term sufferer’s history with the organization, navigating this mild toxicity will take a bit of creative maneuvering. (Think: Martha Graham levels of “creative maneuvering.”)


But you can do it. She’s been an advocate for your organization for forever… And with a bit of support in finding a perfect role for her future with the organization, she’ll continue to be an advocate for years to come.

The Lost Cause

Finally, there is the ultimate toxic leader, the self-important “visionary” who has no time for anyone else’s ideas, simply his own. He may pretend to seek consensus (but really, it feels greasy… Like a sales pitch disguised as a collaborative session).


He imposes absolute vertical management (another of Lolly Daskal’s “8 Deadly Ways to Kill Employee Motivation”), often misrepresenting the positions or interests of those around him. And he is never to blame.


His ideas are big, but rarely are they successful. But not because they were bad ideas, or poorly thought out, or poorly executed. They didn’t work out because someone else was to blame. (Remember that first bad habit about failure to align strategic priorities with spending? This is it in action.)


Avoid him. He’s a lost cause. Find someone with excessive enthusiasm and choose that level of toxicity instead. It will be more fun for all involved.


Next Up…

Stay tuned for our third and final post in this series: Bad Habit #3: Forgoing Managerial Skills for Leadership Ones.


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