Report: Legacy Toxicity in Formal Leader Low-Morale Experiences – Part 2 (March 2023)

Since Fall of 2021 I’ve been tracking formal leaders’ experiences with Legacy Toxicity, and earlier this month I shared the inaugural quantitative dataset for this ongoing data collection project. In this post, I’m sharing qualitative data from the survey (n=53). These are selected responses from two open-ended questions asking participants to offer contextual information about their experiences of legacy toxicity. As a reminder, legacy toxicity within a low-morale experience is marked by:

the dysfunctional environment inherited by a person who assumes a leadership position in a toxic organization or group. Such toxicity may not be effectively mitigated due to the previous incumbent’s role in a) engaging in or perpetuating abuse/neglect, b) already exhausting avenues to eradicate it, and/or c) organizational, group, or individuals’ conscious or unconscious resistance to the new leader’s attempts to reduce or eradicate the source(s) of toxicity.

  • Please share your experience of Legacy Toxicity
    • “I was in a leadership role without proper training. The person that was supposed to be my trainer and mentor retired as soon as I accepted the position. I was coming into a library with really low morale and all of my attempts at improving morale didn’t pan out. I had a great interim manager but the person in the administrative roles was abrasive. The training I did receive was from a program the library no longer used for new employees. I felt unsupported and unappreciated.”
    • “I became the Head of my department after first the retirement of a 23 year long manager retired and left the department to her assistant manager (an assistant manager for 7 years), who stepped down from the position within 10 months due to staff toxicity that was encouraged by the outgoing long-term manager.”
    • “When I attempted to make small but impactful change, I was threatened to have my office doused in gasoline, and unhappy staff went to the director, Board, and eventually the public to try to have me fired.”
    • “My previous incumbent had kept from me, and direct reports and peer managers tried to take advantage of me as a result – including telling me how to do things and trying to see if I could do things that had been denied before (for good reason). The previous person were also white (I am not) and I had to sift through additional burdens that they did not have to face – including dealing with others’ (peers, direct reports, library administrators) constant white and even masculine fragility. I also discovered just how underresourced we had been and had been forced to operate under unsustainable conditions without solutions that I then tried to find. My supervisor was absent except when they needed something urgently, and did not know how to support a non-white direct report (even saying so at one point).”
    • “Some library staff and faculty can’t get past things the dean four deans in the past did (nearly 20 years ago). Some reorganizations and moves have set a trauma that hasn’t been acknowledged (or acknowledged to the satisfaction of those involved) so any new leader is still tied to what leaders did far in the past. They don’t get judged or evaluated on their own merits.”
  • Please share other concerns or strategies you have about dealing with or reducing Legacy Toxicity:
    • “I work very closely with my Management Team to problem solve these types of situations. Sometimes toxic staff just need to leave.”
    • “Knowing what you are stepping into is so key. I had worked on the team before becoming director and had massively misjudged the environment (I have a very bad habit of wanting to think the best of people until they really act badly). I think if I had recognized the magnitude of the issues I would have taken a harder line with the staff on appropriate attitudes and behavior at the start, weeding out not just the one person who I thought was the only problem but the other ringleaders who were more quietly discontented and maladjusted. I would not have allowed staff to openly disrespect me and might have been less liked at first, but ultimately would have probably been more effective at creating an environment of people who wanted to work hard and move forward together and who were willing and able to adapt to change.”
    • “You have to get rid of people who refuse to adapt to the changes needed. Accountability is the corner stone. You cannot just move folks from one department or branch to another. This is viewed as a reward.”
    • “I ran across a white paper online: How to Manage Dysfunctional Workplace Situations and Issues Within Legal Parameters by Howard W. Bell, Jr., President of Bell & Trice Enterprises, Inc. February 19, 2002. On page 12, he lists four individual strategies for Coping with Dysfunctional Workplaces. The approaches are: 1. Stay and seek to change the situation 2. Leave the organization 3. Stay and suffer in silence 4. Stay and try to “best” the system. There are benefits and risks for each approach, which are outlined in the paper. I have tried all four during the course of my career. I learned I am really bad at #3, and incompetent at #4. I advise new employees (first five years of career) towards #2 . I am in my late career, and have settled on #1. This is the one that suits my personality best anyway.”

The survey remains open and I will post updates periodically. See Part 1 of this report.


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