Toxic Work Environments: An Interview with Author Pete Havel

I had a chance to sit down with author and business leader, Pete Havel, to talk about toxic work environments and his new book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures.  

This is a great book that I recently read and immediately added to my list of must-read leadership books. Pete and I share a similar view on leadership, that leaders should run to the fire and put out problems before they get bigger. But what happens if there is an arsonist in the workplace that keeps starting fires? Toxic employees are real and toxic work environments are more common than you think.

 Pete gives us a first-hand view of what it’s like to get hired into a toxic workplace that is held hostage by the actions of one toxic employee. This book is fascinating and it will make you think.

I loved this book and our discussion so please enjoy the conversation!

[Jon] You have a very interesting career history. Tell me a little about your work experience.

[Pete] I’ve spent most of my career as a lobbyist. Who knows toxic environments better than somebody in politics, right?  On a serious note, I’ve also worked closely with chambers of commerce, trade associations, and businesses of all kinds—telling their stories, building relationships and, putting out the occasional fire.

[Jon] Prior to the story in your new book, did you have experience working with difficult people?

[Pete] When you’re a lobbyist, you deal with every personality imaginable—some of them highly toxic.  And, by definition, each elected official is fighting for their own agenda.  That can create some really bad situations, as some are not realistic about their surroundings, or the promises they’ve made to their constituents, and it creates situations where you’re not dealing with a person focused on reality. Some are like actors with a role in a play, not serious negotiators because if they can’t execute, they bang on the table to show their people that they tried. So you have a case where everyone is trying to survive, but the definitions of what survival and victory look like can be defined in dozens of ways. It makes life interesting, to say the least.

[Jon] I never really thought of politicians that way but it makes a lot of sense. In the book, you introduce us to the antagonist named Hazel. What made her so uniquely toxic and what was the effect on the company you worked for?

[Pete] Hazel’s personal behavior was stunning.  She was the classic serial accuser who I was hired to work with.  She had filed so many false complaints—30 plus! and many of those geared toward the variety that can end a person’s job or career—that the organization made a fateful bargain. According to what I was told, she had made legal threats and senior leadership felt compromised and feared leaks that could embarrass the organization and them if they terminated her.

[Pete] My CEO went so far as to call her an ‘Arsonist’.  They decided that rather than fire a false accuser, they would keep her inside the organization and hire someone to take over some of her duties.  But the biggest challenge I faced was not Hazel, but the leadership that made decisions to dodge the problems she presented—they poured gasoline on the fire, so to speak, for everyone in her path.  If leadership had taken care of business like most organizations would, Hazel would have been fired. Instead, they played games, dodged issues and found themselves in constant crisis mode—and truly lost their moorings as leaders over time. While Hazel was called ‘The Arsonist’ by my CEO, I think some others deserved honorable mention or were at the very least vying for her title.

[Jon] This is what makes your story so compelling. It’s truly a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders don’t address a problem or a problem employee in their business. How would you define “arsonist” as it relates to business cultures?

[Pete] An arsonist is a highly destructive person who burns things down around them through their behaviors.  Arsonists in the traditional sense are motivated by finances, ego, desire for attention, adrenaline rushes, hero complexes, and revenge.  Arsonists in organizations operate under the exact same motivations.  They might want your job, clients, or status and will use their behaviors to take actions that get them those things.  Sabotage, crises that they create but then swoop in to solve, destructive gossip and much more.  Many arsonists have a superpower that many of us do not have: the lack of fear of consequences and no remorse for their actions.  When people can turn off those emotions, they can do a lot of damage.

An arsonist in the office is a highly destructive person who burns things down around them through their behaviors. Click To Tweet

[Jon] Switching gears a bit, I love the format of this book. You move in and out from storytelling to teaching concepts. Why did you choose this approach?

[Pete] I had both a message that people needed to hear when it comes to leadership, awareness, management and knowledge you only get when you’re in the middle of a broken culture.  But, I also had a personal experience that could help tell that story and would stick in people’s minds to help them remember the lessons.  And, I had a story that was just begging to be told in a way that showed the absurdity of what I witnessed.

[Pete] I had no interest in a ‘woe is me’ rant. The Arsonist in the Office is as funny as it is infuriating. At times, you won’t know whether you’re reading a business book or a novel.  And it’s by design. This is a tough topic as I’m talking about the worst experience of my life, but I wanted to make the learning part of the equation as enjoyable as possible.  My book is in a parable form, with the lessons I learned as the parable.  Readers learn how not to get burned by an arsonist by going through my experience.

[Jon] I teach the idea based on my naval submarine experience that leaders should run to the fire. They should attack problems before they get out of control. Why do you think the leaders in your story ran away from the fire? What was the effect?

[Pete] When you’re near a fire, there’s the chance of it burning you.  People with courage and the proper training understand that leaders are uniquely positioned to put out some fires.  In fact, it’s their role and it’s one that they must embrace to truly be successful. The leadership that I encountered openly worried about their legacies and their financial future if they ridded the company of their arsonist.  The effect was that a fire had long since been started by Hazel and it spread.  She furthered it with other actions on her own, but the message sent to other employees was unmistakable—they clearly understood through management inaction that bad behavior was going to be tolerated.  It set a new standard—or multiple standards for the ethics, values, and standards of the company.  Ignore that wildfire and you’ll eventually see the damage spread to every corner of the organization.

The message sent to other employees was unmistakable—they clearly understood through management inaction that bad behavior was going to be tolerated. Click To Tweet

[Jon] The impact of toxic employees and cultures seem to be in the news a lot lately. What are some recent stories you have heard that reinforce the importance of this topic?

[Pete] How long do you have?  We’ve seen recent examples with McDonald’s and Capital One what happens with organizations that have different rules for different people.  They lead to scandals (McDonald’s) and can lead to massive data breaches (Capital One).  In both cases, leaders either ignored their own rules or allowed toxic people to run roughshod.  Both are equally damaging.

[Jon] What has been the feedback from people who have read this book?

[Pete] So far, it’s been outstanding.  I’ve been very blessed. The risk I took with this book—especially in telling my own personal (but fictionalized) story—is massive.  It’s taboo to talk about what happened in a previous job.  But the style with which I wrote this did not reveal any insider information or name names, but it did reveal exactly what can happen when organizations abandon their values and stop caring about their culture and people.  The book and my message have generated great media coverage, excellent reviews, and feedback from individuals from the CEO level on down about the impact it’s had on how they operate.  That makes every second of dealing with Hazel worth it…ok, not every moment, but it’s still worth it.

[Jon] It’s good to hear the book is making a positive impact. What did you hope to achieve by writing and teaching on this important topic?

[Pete] I want to change bad cultures. Period.  I want to wake up the CEO who might be asleep at the wheel when it comes to culture or is simply relying on the culture that they saw before. I want to get them thinking about that top performer, but who is also an arsonist, in a new way.  I want to protect good people with the tools they need to survive in bad conditions. And, I want to shake things up for everyone who is taking abuse in the workplace. I’ve seen the wreckage in people’s eyes and their lives and I’ve made eliminating their burdens part of my mission.

[Jon] What is meant by “fireproofing” yourself and your organization?

[Pete] Fireproofing means a commitment to rebuilding the structure of your organization in ways that either catch arsonists early on or take care of them as soon as possible in the process.  It starts with revamping organizational values and commitment from company leadership, moves onto getting the hiring process as strong as possible to look for troubling candidates, and then moves throughout the organization to implement a welcoming and open, but watchful organization that both rewards great performance and cultural stars, but looks to extinguish fires as soon as they start. Then, in the endgame when fires start repeatedly, it means equipping an organization with the resolve to have one set of rules for everyone when it comes to highly destructive behavior.  Fireproofing doesn’t mean you’ll never have trouble, but it means the chance of a fire is lowered dramatically, it has less chance to spread, and when a fire does break out, it’s extinguished quickly.

Fireproofing means a commitment to rebuilding the structure of your organization in ways that either catch arsonists early on or take care of them as soon as possible in the process. Click To Tweet

[Jon] How can people get more information on your book or get your help in addressing their cultural challenges?

[Pete] They can find The Arsonist in the Office on Amazon, but they can also go to arsonistintheoffice.com to get a signed copy.  I have the book available in paperback, e-book, and now in audiobook—which is the version that really brings the book to life.

[Jon] By the way, I read the paperback then listened to the audiobook. I agree I think the audiobook really brings this book to life. I love how you used different voice actors to play the roles of all the characters in the story. Well done! 

This is an important leadership topic and a great book by Pete Havel. Please reach out to Pete and thank him for all his insights and take a moment to purchase this book for your library. I recommend buying both the book and the audiobook! You won’t regret it!

Toxic Work Environments: An Interview with Leadership Author Pete Havel

The One Problem in Business We Can’t Seem to Solve

A Powerful Visual

On Monday night, two AFC East football rivals played under the lights. The New England Patriots had traveled to take on the New York Jets. New England took an early lead and seemed to be dominating their opponent in every phase of the game. While leading 24-0, head coach Bill Belichick called his entire defense together to “coach them up” on the sidelines.

What was remarkable was watching the players. Every eye was on Coach Belichick. They listen to every word and nodded in agreement. It was a powerful visual moment. Even though they were winning, Belichick knew they could do better and he challenged them. It was an image of an engaged leader and an engaged team.

The Challenge

I’ve been in managing people for nearly 30 years and one of the biggest challenges has always been getting people engaged in the business. How do you get them fired up, excited, and actively helping you achieve the organizational goals?

The Gallup organization famously does a survey every year to measure the amount of employee engagement around companies in North America. The thing they find consistently year-after-year is that 70% of employees are typically disengaged at work. It’s a number that doesn’t change. In all the improvements we have made in leadership and business, we haven’t been able to solve this one problem. Overall employee engagement is poor and it isn’t getting any better.

Overall employee engagement is poor and it isn’t getting any better. Click To Tweet

The question is, why are a vast majority of employees just clocking in and out without any desire to get involved with their employer?

A Monster We Created

The sad thing is that when most employees first come to work at any new job, they are excited. They want to be involved and engaged. For many, this is their dream job and they have spent years in school or in training becoming qualified for this role. They want to make a difference and be part of the team.

What ends up happening is these new employees quickly become disillusioned.

They work for bosses who are too busy to lead – bosses who ignore them, don’t listen to their ideas and don’t treat them with the respect they deserve. And most leaders don’t understand how their actions affect their people. These wide-eyed, excited, new employees get slapped in the face with the cold, hard reality of leadership in Corporate America. And after a while, many new employees just give up.

They say to themselves, “You know what, I’m just going to do my job, keep my mouth shut and go home.”

The problem with employee disengagement is that it’s a monster we created. We built this. It’s the leadership in Corporate America that took excited, engaged, happy employees and turned them into apathetic, sarcastic, and discouraged workers who are just trying to make it through the day.

The clear problem with employee engagement in business today is leadership (or the lack thereof).

Back to Basics

You might be surprised to learn there have been more than 15,000 books written on the subject of leadership. It seems our knowledge of leadership has never been stronger. It also seems like our practice of leadership remains subpar and it’s getting worse. The busier we get as leaders, the less time we have to spend with our people. In a time where we are all connected digitally, we are becoming more disconnected on a personal level.

In a time where we are all connected digitally, we are becoming more disconnected on a personal level. Click To Tweet

If we want to solve this problem, it’s time to get back to the basics of leadership. Leadership is simple – It’s about influencing a group of people to accomplish a goal. There are three main elements: people, influence, and goals. Do you know what’s not on this list? E-mails or meetings.

The average manager today is too busy to lead. Many business leaders come into work and they have full inboxes and long to-do lists. They spend the morning banging out e-mails because they have meetings to get to. They have back-to-back meetings then head out to lunch with a customer or vendor. By two in the afternoon, they still haven’t even seen any members of their team. And the process repeats itself the next day.

Most managers are forgetting about people, influence, and goals. And most employees feel their manager just doesn’t care.

We have to remember that leadership is a people business.

Make a Change Today

The first step in solving this problem is to recognize that, as leaders, we are in the people business. We have a team of people who work for us and we need to engage them. Just like Coach Belichick, if we want engaged employees, we need to be an engaged leader! That’s the bottom line.

If we want engaged employees, we need to be an engaged leader! Click To Tweet

As a leader, you can never underestimate the power of your presence. So be present!

Physically push yourself away from your desk. Even if you’re swamped with work, get into the workplace and talk to people. See what’s going on. Engage your team!

Try this out for the next two weeks and see if it makes a difference in your organization. Focus on people, influence, and goals. You’ll be surprised by the results.

If you are striving to become a better leader, get a copy of my Amazon best selling bookI have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

7 Keys to Engaging Your Employees

In my last post, I was asked how to grab the leadership bull by the horns when you suddenly find yourself thrust into a new position.

And I said the first 100 days are critical.

To review, you’ve got to have a plan, you’ve got to have dialogue…and as many one-on-one meetings as possible!  If you haven’t read my comments yet, you can find them here.

Moving on…

Here are 7 more ways to “ace” that first 100 days:

1. Set expectations early. People want to know what you stand for.  Let them know what’s important to you as a leader. I typically send a list of my top 10 expectations to my team in the first few weeks.

The worst thing you can do is leave them guessing.

2. Set an example. Your minimum behaviors will be your team’s maximum performance. If you expect people to be on time, you need to be on time. If you expect managers to get out of their offices, you need to be out of your office. If you expect people to wear their safety equipment, you need to wear your safety equipment.

It’s simple.

You can’t lead people where you yourself aren’t willing to go!

3. Signal your priorities.  If you spend the first two hours of each day on your computer and not with your team, they’ll notice. They’ll assume they’re not as important as your e-mail. If you’re all about the inventory numbers and not the on-time delivery results, they’ll think you don’t care about customers.

Always be aware…

Your actions telegraph your intentions.

4. Create a buzz.  Do something to get everyone talking. Make it dramatic enough that it gets the point across instantly.  Here’s an example.  In one manufacturing plant, I had the maintenance team paint over all the signs for the reserved parking spaces for managers…mine included!

The message was clear:

No special treatment.

We’re in this together.

5. Communicate with employees regularly.  Look, leadership changes can make people uneasy.  Your employees will want to know, will there be any organization changes? What are your initial observations? How are things going?

TIP: Send a weekly e-mail to your team.

Let them know what you’re seeing and what they can expect. If there’s any void in communication, worry, speculation, and rumors will spring up in its stead.

6. Create the mood. Attitude is contagious. You need to be upbeat and “on your game” when you’re around your team – no matter what’s going on for you personally. Be empathetic when you have serious issues to deal with, of course.  But if you’re consistently upbeat and in good spirits, the team will mirror your energy.

A leader who’s quiet, unresponsive, angry, abrasive or sarcastic, will suck the life out of any team. Always think about what mood you’re conveying.

7. Cast a vision. At the end of the first 100 days, your team’s strengths and weaknesses will be evident. The goal now is to communicate your vision for the future. Know where you want to go. Let your team “see” your vision in a way that’s clear and concise.

Setting the tone early is critical.

All eyes are on you as the new leader, so make it count.

Create a buzz, set an example, show your priorities, establish the mood and most of all…

BE PRESENT.

All of the above will save your gluteus maximus down the line if and when you need to work as a team on the tough issues.

That’s all for today.

One more thing, if you haven’t already, be sure to get your copy of my book I Have The Watch by going here.

And if you buy it before October 30, 2019, and send me your receipt, I’ll send you a special 20-minute video interview I recorded called “Engage Your People, Or Die” that contains some of my best “shotgun” tricks for quickly bringing your team on side when your survival depends on it…because it does!

This recording is NOT for sale anywhere.

And I honestly think it’s some of my most valuable content on the subject…not that I’m biased or anything. 😉

I could probably charge as much as $49 for the video, but it’s yours FREE if you buy the book and send me your receipt by October 30th at 11:59 PM.  Grab your copy today!