If Abusive Leaders Do Not Change Their Behavior, I Can And Will Withdraw My Support

January 22, 2010 11 Comments

The next meditation on followership from Ira Chaleff’s book “The Courageous Follower” is: If abusive leaders do not change their behavior, I can and will withdraw my support. If we don’t confront abusive behaviors, then we collude with the leader in the abuse. Our silence is construed as assent.

People that knowing and willingly abuse power are counting on the fact that no one will have the courage to stand up and challenge their behavior. A follower that has the courage to challenge bad behavior is a force to be reckoned with, especially if the follower is a stellar and purposeful performer.

Challenge bad behavior early, because the longer we wait the harder it gets. We challenge because we care about our leader and the organization we share stewardship for with her. We are willing to be patient with our leader as she struggles with the discomfort and fear of confronting her own weakness, but we must be resolute.

If the behavior does not improve, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves and admit that it probably never will improve. At that point, we have a choice to stick with our leader and the organization or to withdraw support.

If we stay, we need to understand clearly that we will NEVER have a voice. If we surrender our voice, we surrender the essence of our dignity. Without a voice, we have no hope of ever being remarkable. Is any job worth that?

If we confront the leader and tell her that although we will continue to perform our duties we no longer believe in and support her, we need to be prepared to have our employment terminated. But do we really want to work for people that don’t give a damn about us, that treat us as replaceable parts in an organization they are driving to the bottom? If we don’t quit a terrible job, we might survive, but we will never thrive.

We should plan our contingencies wisely, but don’t waste any more time than we have to working for people that disable rather than enable us. It is our responsibility to be prepared for the day we will be given the privilege to lead others, and we simply can’t be prepared if we don’t learn as followers how to recognize and confront an abuse of power.

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Comments (11)

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  1. Catherine says:

    Bret,

    Thanks for your series of meditations on this book. I’ve enjoyed them all. I think this is one of the most powerful statements that can be made about abusive leadership: “If we don’t confront abusive behaviors, then we collude with the leader in the abuse. Our silence is construed as assent.”

    Too often, people sit back and allow abusive and unethical behavior to continue. It does take courage to both stand up and also, recognize the consequences that can occur. It’s easy to justify our silence by hiding behind position or policy, but we as you so eloquently stated, we then become a part of the problem. Thanks again for your thoughtful posts!

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Catherine! You correctly point out that we can easily become part of the problem, but that is very difficult for most to see. We are so used to thinking about how we are affected by others that we give way too little thought to how we can and must affect others, especially our leaders. Thanks for sharing! Bret

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  2. Brad says:

    Thanks for this post. It speaks in a very real way to me, as I have dealt with an abusive leader in the past. Even though I loved the job duties and I believed in our mission, it was difficult to stay in a place where I clearly did not have a voice. As a mid-level leader, I could not accept my team taking this abuse either. I did leave, but always wondered if I just did not have the “skin” to stick it out. I think I can find some peace in your words. Looking back on my decision, I am better off for it, since I found a more supportive organization where I can control my own destiny.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Brad! I really appreciate you sharing this personal story from your experience. I think you did the right thing. If you had stayed you would be a different person today. You needed to go through the hell and uncertainty of leaving to get to where you are today. Thanks for sharing! Bret

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  3. Bret, as you know, I’ve been enjoying this series you’ve been putting together on Chaleff’s book. But this one I think is a really valuable one because of how it reminds people of the power that they have within their hands.

    I know from both personal experience and that of my friends of the frustration and yes, sense of helpless one can feel when working for an abusive leader. For some reason or another, we convince ourselves that there’s nothing we can do about the situation.

    In this piece, you do a fantastic job of countering this wrong assumption, reminding us that by passively accepting such conduct, we’re essentially abdicating our right and ability to change the situation.

    Thanks for sharing this insight, Bret. Very empowering and reassuring.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It’s not easy, as you know, Tanveer, but it is essential. Only we can give away our influence, and we do have a lot both individually and collectively. Thanks for sharing! Bret

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  4. Wade Anderson says:

    I agree whole heartedly with the assessment that if we cannot get the leadership to address bad behavior then we must be prepared to leave. I have been in the unfortuanately position twice to have to leave a company because of leadership’s treatment of my services and their refusal to handle it after I raised concerns. In both situations I left the companies and have never regretted either decision. Its unfortunate that with today’s job market many people may feel trapped in their current positions.

    It is correct that if we do nothing than it is the same as agreeing with the leadership’s behaviors and decisions. It could also be that if we don’t have the courage to say anything that the leadership does not know or realize what they are doing. We have to remember that it is also our responsibility as employees to communicate honestly and effictively with our management.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Wade! I really appreciate you sharing this story from your experience. I agree that in today’s market people may feel trapped, and it’s easy for me to say they have to get over that and get busy looking, but what is the alternative? Surrender your dignity and degrade your self-worth? I could never advice anyone to do that. And you are correct that some times good people do bad things and are clueless to what they are doing. It’s our responsibility to help. Thanks for sharing! Bret

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Bret:

    I follow your blog and find your advice so helpful and very compelling. I’ve watched this video and read this post twice. While the post affirms the decision I made to leave my job, and that feels great, the consequences have been hard.

    Along the way in my career, I have take a lot of leadership development training. The more I learned about good practice, and the higher my positions have gone, the less tolerant I have become. I made a decision to never compromise my integrity. I also decided to never allow my boss to abuse me or the people who report to me. And, in my last executive -evel position, my boss and I just came to THAT critical juncture, and I quit. The conversation was professional. There was minimal drama. But I did it. At first, it felt great, especially because I have always wanted to start a consulting company. I want to be the boss, and I want to lead others with integrity.

    The long term fallout is less than great. I have had a hard time getting my consulting practice going (although I have had some nibbles.)

    I’m also looking for another job, because I need a backup plan and I do need health care. The job market is tight, but worse, my previous boss is well-connected in a pretty small sector. I’m fairly confident that she’s had an impact on my inability to land the jobs for which I have interviewed. Fortunately, I am connected in a variety of sectors, so I have other options, but there just aren’t a lot of jobs out there.

    Ultimately, I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe I will land in the right place doing the right work with and for people who are good. But, I’ve questioned my competency, and my esteem suffers a lot, especially late at night when I am up worrying, thinking: Am I unemployable? Unlikeable? A trouble-making employee? Or am I an executive and a leader who doesn’t want to compromise? Good or bad?

    I think I have done the right thing for myself and I try to reassure myself that I may have helped those who are left behind. It’s disconcerting to realize that my quitting is not going to have any impact or effect any change in such a poor supervisor. I’m just left questioning myself, and hoping to end up much better off in the long run. Only time will tell!

    Keep bringing us great stuff, Brett.

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    wow, thanks for sharing your story. First, you DID do the right thing to chose integrity over compromise. Don’t let any asshole try to steal your dignity. Starting a business is tough, especially in this economy. Are you branding yourself by blogging? If not, you should really consider it. I know it sounds tough now, but a few years from now you will count these days as critical to your new success and freedom. Be encouraged! Bret

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    Anonymous Reply:

    Thanks, Bret. Your words are encouraging me and yes, I am blogging and tweeting, and FBing and Linking In! Don’t worry about the social media…have that covered! Need some clients! :-)

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