A Consultant’s Guide to Spotting Toxic Organizations

Maybe it was what I learned from co-teaching a doctoral course on organizational performance this summer. Or, it could be the alignment of certain celestial bodies. Either way I’ve been thinking about toxic organizations and the damage they cause themselves. The survival skill set for consultants should include the ability to quickly spot toxic organizations.

Most organizations don’t know what they don’t know, but let’s not confuse that with toxicity. The litmus test is whether the organization understands how important it is to learn. A toxic organization is more likely to cling to old, familiar behaviors and to actively resist efforts to turn foundational ignorance around. A learning organization–on the other hand–understands the value of being wrong and celebrates the journey necessary to getting better. Toxic organizations already believe they are better and consequently are more likely to engage in consultant abuse.

Several weeks ago, I fired a toxic organization after a steadily devolving relationship spanning five years. This organization (whose name, for no other reason than professional courtesy, won’t be divulged here) had been given a sweetheart role far beyond its own experience to link the expertise of consultants to a range of education providers. All was reasonable in the first years of this work as the organization and its first wave of consultants coalesced around the mantra of “building a bicycle while riding it.” Sadly, though, as the work became more complex and trust between the organization and its partner organizations deteriorated, the organization began sliding down the slippery slope of trying to control its own consultants.

Most organizational consultants naively believe in the existence of surefire cures for bad organizations. I’m no exception. As the story goes, bring them to understand their own shortcomings and possibilities to do better–painful as that process may be–and they’ll get better by leaps and bounds, right? Well, no. Organizations don’t get better unless they sincerely want to. In that light, there are abundant clues that should guide a consultant’s decision about if and where to spend professional energy.

Here’s Rick Voorhees’ Checklist for Spotting Toxic Organizations:

  1.  Foremost, does the organization understand the expertise that consultants bring and that–because the organization lacks the expertise that it is hiring–the consultants it hires are a critical internal customer? Are consultants seen as partners or as units of expenditure to be controlled?
  2. What is the organization’s track record in dealing with consultants and other partners? Have other consultants told the organization to take a hike? Why? Finding out why others won’t work with the organization can save valuable time.
  3.  What is the trust quotient within the organization? How fearing of its own role is it? The above organization became increasingly bureaucratic and controlling, requiring consultants to sign agreements that would have limited their consulting with other partners and to seek approval for all travel two months ahead of time. Organizations that truly understand that a networked world depends on expertise also understand that they can’t regulate that expertise
  4. Does the organization treat its consultants like de facto employees? There’s a distinct role for consultants (and the expertise they bring) versus what the organization can require of its own employees. I was told by a junior staff member that the organization could require any behavior from its consultants since they were, in fact, employees. This has obvious and dangerous legal implications including workmen’s compensation, health insurance, Of course, this very junior person now denies ever saying this.
  5. Does the organization have have a systematic way of evaluating its own performance? It seems disingenuous that a national organization the promotes data-driven decision making would avoid having concrete ways of gathering data about its own performance in the field. Another sign of dry rot.
  6. How does the organization communicate internally? Externally? This organization attempted to double their dues for constituent institutions one short week after a national meeting in which the leadership of these institutions were present. Not a good communication strategy.
  7.  Does the organization hire its own staff and family members as consultants? In other words, does the organization promote nepotism?
  8.  Are ego needs out of balance? Does the management’s ego needs outweigh the importance of attending to the work? In the present example, the organization felt very threatened when given opposite opinions to what their controlling nature told them should be happening.
  9. Finally, does the organization actually consult its own consultants? Or, are they ignored except when very convenient. Consultants are a critical internal resource and organizations who are too hidebound to learn from them probably ought not to have them.

None of these flaws alone is fatal if the organization can identify them and turn them around. Collectively, however, they are a shipwreck. Toxic organizations are usually unable to identify any flaws without expert intervention. And, when #9 is in play, the chances of a toxic organization getting better are zilch. Better to walk away than to be like Sisyphus, constantly pushing a ball up a hill. Sometimes, it’s just the wrong hill.

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