Want to Call Out a Toxic Leader? Ask Madeleine

February 18, 2023 Madeleine Homan Blanchard


Dear Madeleine,

I lead a business unit for a global manufacturing company and have been in the role for about 18 months. I took over for someone who was completely checked out and it was a bit of a mess. It has taken me this long just to untangle the log jams and uncover all of the critical tasks that weren’t getting done. I had to replace a few key managers who weren’t enthusiastic about being held accountable.

All of the processes and systems are now up and running, and things are smooth enough that I have devoted some time to doing skip-level meetings with people who report to my executive team members. These have been enlightening, to say the least. It has become clear to me that one of my team members, who has delivered stellar results, has also created a toxic work environment. He yells at people in front of others and his team members live in fear of making a mistake. I believe it is only a matter of time before they start quitting in droves.

I was put in this job because my strength is process, so I am a little at sea about what to do about this situation. My instinct is to call him out in front of the rest of the team so he knows what that feels like, because that’s exactly what he is doing. I am so mad that this is the only thing I have come up with so far. Any ideas would be appreciated.

Process Master


Dear Process Master,

Congratulations on your success.

Skip levels can indeed be illuminating. You have somehow earned enough trust in the organization that people are willing to tell the truth about their experience. The problem is now that you know, and people know you know, you do need to do something about it or you risk losing that trust.

The question is: what?

Your instinct is understandable and your hesitation is smart. You don’t want to role model the exact behaviors you are trying to curtail. You have already shifted the culture of the organization to be process focused. What else do you think is important to the culture? If culture is values in action, what are the values you want to see? There are clues in your allergic reaction to the way your direct report is treating his people.

If you see yelling at people—especially in front of others—as unacceptable, what should replace that behavior? Possibly this indicates that you think leaders should treat their people with respect and should give feedback in private. What exactly would that look like?

If people live in fear of making a mistake, how should mistakes be dealt with? The way you answer this question reveals the value you want your leaders to embody. Perhaps you think that mistakes reveal a lack of competence that needs to be addressed. This might represent the value of preparedness. Possibly you feel people have too much on their plates and need help to balance their workload. That might represent the value of fairness, say, or load balancing.

What else did you hear from your skip levels that leads you to diagnose the environment their leader has created as toxic? What exact specific things did you hear that the leader does that makes you believe people will quit in droves? This is the only way to shape the requests you can make of your direct report. It should be direct and straightforward, so that there is no confusion about the message you are sending.

It might sound something like this:

  • “I understand you routinely yell at your people in front of their peers. That is not an effective way to build trust among your people. I request that you never raise your voice and offer redirection in private. Keep things matter of fact, never personal.”
  • “I heard your people live in fear of making mistakes. I request that you treat people with respect and treat mistakes as information that something is not quite right. Get to bottom of what is causing the mistakes and fix it.”
  • “Your results have been excellent, but you won’t be able to sustain them if everyone quits. So I need to see if you can produce the same results while creating an environment that people enjoy working in.”

Write down your requests, and, if possible, practice with someone safe. Do not allow yourself to make room for excuses or get drawn into a debate. That will take you down a road that will not serve you.

Once you make clear requests, make sure your direct report knows you will be following up to check on his compliance with them. Be ready to share the consequences he will face if he does not change his behavior. He has already seen that you will not tolerate lack of accountability, so that should work in your favor.

As the leader of your unit, it is your responsibility to share the values you expect your team to use as they lead their people. You seem to have gotten the message across that process alignment and task completion are the most important. Now you can add other values—maybe respect, or kindness, or appreciation for employees. One leader I worked with had a value he called “No Jerks.” His people knew exactly what that meant.

I can’t tell you what your values are—only you can sleuth those out by noticing what you don’t want. That will help you to articulate what you do want, what is most important, and what is unacceptable. Those are your values. Once you figure them out, share them with your people regularly. Use them to shape the feedback you give. Track the extent to which your leaders are guided by those values in performance reviews. As you know, anyone can get great results through bullying in the short term, but it will tank results in the long term.

I suspect you will rise to this new leadership challenge.

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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