Exiting Employee Labeled You as a Toxic Leader? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage an operations department for the headquarters of a large media company. I have six direct reports and about 70 workers who report to them.

One of my direct reports recently left, and I was absolutely shocked at the things he told HR in his exit interview. He worked for me for three years, and in that time I thought we got along just fine. I regularly asked him for feedback. Other than a few requests for clarification on some tasks, I didn’t get any. He did a good job and his people seemed to like working with him.

He told HR that I had created a hostile work environment and that I was the worst kind of toxic leader he had ever worked for. They asked for examples, and he didn’t have much to offer—so I am none the wiser as to how he came to his conclusion.

I have regular one on ones with all of my people. Everyone knows what their goals are and we have a very open and transparent culture on my team (or so I thought). We don’t have big goals in my department, just regular tasks and fulfilling requirements for the physical plant. It is all very straightforward.

I am absolutely mystified by this feedback, and extremely upset. I have asked my HR partner to help me understand and figure out what to do about it, and she is as mystified as I am. She said that I should just shrug it off as a disgruntled employee and leave it at that. Normally when HR gets complaints about those kinds of things they do a full investigation, but they are not going to do that on this one; maybe I should just let it go. What do you think?

What Am I Doing Wrong?


Dear What Am I Doing Wrong,

Gosh, don’t you just hate getting such awful feedback, second hand, with no explanation? It is the worst kind of surprise. I feel very bad for you. And I appreciate your willingness to do some soul searching as a result.

If your HR team is not inclined to give the feedback any credence, I think that is a good indicator that you shouldn’t either. It is always true that feedback says more about the person giving it than the person it is directed at. And I think when you ask people for feedback and they don’t give it to you but they complain about you behind your back, they are unhappy. And they are responsible for creating their own yucky reality. Some people are simply not inclined to trust others, no matter how hard others try to be trustworthy. An article by Blanchard’s trust expert, Randy Conley, might be helpful for exploring that idea.

There seems to be a crisis of trust in organizations all around the globe. One recent study found that 86% of employees feel people at their workplace are not heard fairly or equally. It is always possible that your own blind spots, world view, and/or unconscious biases contributed to your employee’s experience.

I always ask clients to do one thing with feedback that is hard to hear or that they don’t expect: ask themselves “What if this were true?”

So. What if what your direct report said was true? The questions that present themselves might be:

  • Is it possible others feel that way?
  • How might I find out?
  • What would keep anyone from giving me feedback directly?
  • Is there anything I do that might make others feel unsafe?
  • Is there anything I do that might make others not trust me to hear feedback without retaliating if I hear something I don’t like?
  • Is it possible that I treat people differently depending on my biases? Might I have unconscious biases that I need to address?

For one of the most amazing tools that outlines all of the possible cognitive biases, click here.

You should absolutely speak with each of your remaining direct reports to see if anyone else feels the same way. You can certainly ask questions like:

  • Is there anything I do or don’t do that ever makes you feel unsafe?
  • Would you tell me if I did?
  • Do you feel like I have your back?
  • Is there anything you think would make me a more effective manager?

You can give people the option to not answer right away, but to take some time to think about it and get back to you. It can be hard for a direct report to be put on the spot. The most important thing when receiving feedback is to not argue. There are exactly three responses to use when getting feedback: (1) “Thank you for telling me that,” (2) “I understand,” and (3) “Tell me more.”

Another option is to ask your HR group to use some kind of multi-rater 360 degree feedback tool. There are many options; they should have something. The ones we use and love are the Tru-Score, for fundamental management practices, and the ECR, to assess Emotional Intelligence. The anonymous nature of these tools might provide individuals with a safe way to share their thoughts and allow for more candor.

As a leader, it is your duty to engage in some self-reflection and ask what part you may have played in creating the situation. It does inspire confidence that your HR group did not take the exit interview seriously, but if you have any inkling at all that there might be something for you to examine, you should honor it.

Do a little due diligence. Take a long hard look in the mirror. Ask some questions and listen carefully to the answers. You will know if there is work for you to do, or if you can let the whole thing go.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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