Interview with Julia Füredi, dr., about career challenges and toxic leadership

Julia, I was happy to attend one of your lectures in September when you talked about the pitfalls of business transformation projects, I found the topic very relevant. Today, I would like to ask you about two other topics, such as what challenges you faced as a woman during your 30 year long career in HR, and whether you had any experience with toxic leaders. As you are an organizational psychologist, I’m particularly interested to see your views on these.

My very first experience was with a Belgian CEO at Kraft Jacobs Suchard back in the early ’90s who didn’t like the fact that I could become a Board Member at age 28 – the only woman at that time. In today’s world, it would be considered as a discrimination against me but it didn’t bother me back then. I was simply not interested. I grew up in a family where my grandfather taught me fishing, riding a motorcycle and shooting at a very early age, so what’s the issue with being a woman?

However, sometime later, at a consulting firm in Hungary I had to face a similar situation. I was involved in an organizational development project at a state owned company where I was charged with reviewing the management and HR processes. From the very beginning I was warned by others that I should be careful because the CEO does not like women very much and that he would only talk to men. I soon realized this was true, but I thought it was because he didn’t know me yet. So I wrote the final report, and when he reviewed it, he downgraded it as a bad material, saying he wouldn’t pay for it. Then I suggested my colleagues that we change a couple of words on the first page and write the name of a male colleague at the end of the report instead of mine. After giving it back to him, he was very satisfied with the report, saying “Well yes, that’s it, this is what I wanted to see, why didn’t you have it right away?” I think it tells more about him than about me.

There are research studies conducted in the field of social-psychology which confirm what you are saying. For example, in one study a thesis was submitted for review to university professors and students under a male and female name, and both the teachers and fellow students evaluated better the paper which had a male name on it.

I found this case at the state owned company actually entertaining because it seemed so unrealistic. I couldn’t identify with the fact that he valued me less just because I was a woman. We all knew that it was me who had made the report, nothing else mattered. There was no battle of egos on my part. It really started to bother me when I worked at Unicredit Bank. We worked in a matrix-based organization, and besides the local managing director, I also reported to head of HR in Vienna. When I told her I was not happy with my salary because all the men on the Management Board were of the same age as me, and with a similar experience, but they earned 30% more than me, she became furious at me, and told me off for raising my voice. It was a very bad experience.

This is also backed up by research, that there is a constant 10-30% difference in salary between men and women in the same position.

Yes, indeed. In 2009 when I was appointed, and in 2017 when I left the bank, I still earned 30% less than other board members. It was very disappointing because I thought it was very unfair, especially that I had received very positive feedbacks during all my annual performance reviews. 

How widespread is this, in your opinion?

I’m not sure. It may also be due to the fact that HR is not valued enough, it is considered only as a support function. And it seems like HR won’t be treated as a serious business function anymore, as it’s more and more moving towards such roles as “happiness manager” and “vibe officer”. 

Are you saying that the ongoing devaluation of HR is reflected in the pay gap?

Absolutely! I was lucky enough to sit at the table in Board meetings with fellow executives, unlike many HR executives. I successfully managed a lot of expansions, transformations, and outsourcing programs within the bank, but still, I believe that HR had a much lower value and importance in the company. This is strange, because technology can always be purchased, but a company’s competitive edge is provided by their people.

And do you see any other cases where female leaders may be disadvantaged compared to men?

Recently, I read an article on linkedin about why there are so many unfit male executives. I think it’s due to the fact that there aren’t enough unfit female executives to compare them to. There are very few women executives who get to the top who, in turn, are regarded as token women. In the case of women executives, you are either extremely good – you have to be if you want to make a successful career in management -, or you are part of the “quota”.

Yes, there are some research studies conducted in Northern European countries that have already introduced the mandatory number of female executives, the quota, in companies. It turned out there are some women executives who are called “golden skirts”, as they get highly paid sitting on several boards, just to comply with the required quota numbers. It seems the system is being artificially maintained.

Yes, but you find it elsewhere, too. I felt really honoured to be invited to the largest European fintech conference in 2017 and this year as well to talk about business transformation projects as an HR professional. The room was full with 500 people so there was a huge interest in the topic. One or two weeks before the conference this year, I was informed I would get more stage time to conduct a panel discussion besides my presentation: “Bank as a product, bank as a brand”. I didn’t understand, as I had nothing to do with the topic, and the panel included various leaders of large European banks. Finally it came down to me that I was invited to host the panel because panel members were all males. At first I was annoyed that I was chosen for this role because I’m a woman, but in the end my husband convinced me that this was a great opportunity for me to talk to them, so I accepted the invitation and it actually turned out to be a great event.

How would you interpret all this, Julia?

What is so hard to know at this point is whether you are invited because you are very clever, or because your presence is needed to increase the ratio of women. Anyhow, when a woman gets to the top I think the best she could do is to leave the door wide open to let other women get in, to support them in their career advancement.

Who do you think is a „good” leader, Julia? How can “goodness” be measured? And once we’ve defined who is good, who do you think is a “bad” leader?  

In my view, a good leader can be defined in two ways. He’s capable of self-reflection – and not only capable but also actively doing it -, and people are ready to follow him or her. They set out to follow him, but he doesn’t need to look back to see if they are behind him. Toxic leaders, however, do not look back. They believe they are good leaders, and people are willing to follow them, but they actually do it out of fear of them. 

And why is self-reflection needed? 

For everything! In every leadership situation, one has to redefine and rewire oneself. This doesn’t mean you are constantly changing as a leader, but you need to challenge the way you see things. You may end up saying that “I am like this and I do not want to change” but at least you are aware of who you are. And what really matters in the end is to know what kind of people you can work with. For example, I couldn’t work with people who glorified me too much as an HR executive, because sometimes I felt the need to take off my shoes and walk down the office barefooted because my high heels hurt, but you can’t do this if the expectation towards you, as a leader, is far too high. And I can’t work efficiently with people who are afraid of me, because it takes a lot of time to break down their fears and make them stay open.

And who is considered a “bad” leader in your opinion? What do you see the „dark side of leadership”?

My biggest problem with “bad” leaders is that they are not leaders at all. There’s no such thing as a “bad” leader: someone is either a leader or not. Someone is not a leader, if they’re afraid of people, or who are not interested in people in general. Those who have followers can be considered leaders. People may also follow toxic leaders out of fear, but such leaders are narcissistic people, exhibiting extreme insecurity. I used to have such a peer who was a very toxic person, and I came to a point with him where I was sitting opposite him, listening to him, and thinking that he would need a therapist. I don’t usually diagnose people like other psychologists do, but here you could see that his condition was very serious. These people are not stable personalities, and that’s the biggest challenge with them.

And how do these people get through the selection process at a company? Or do they become toxic only after joining an organization? 

These people are called „brilliant jerks”, they can get through anything.

You mean leaders who are productive, successful and charismatic?

Yes, people who have no inhibitions whatsoever, almost bordering on psychopathy. They are not afraid of anyone, and because they are highly motivated to show off, they easily share their opinion with anyone, and in an interesting way, which arouses people’s interest. They also have very divisive personalities, but are often thrown into very messy situations, nevertheless, because they either survive, or leave the scene. And usually with their out-of-the-box abilities and aggressive behaviour – which are key elements of a toxic personality-, they get along successfully. I’m primarily talking about men, by the way.

Yes, that’s interesting. Do you think toxic behaviour is prevailing among women executives, too?

Yes, I had such a toxic colleague once, and she made me cry for 4 years. She wasn’t mean only to me, but I think I was the only one who couldn’t tolerate it well. I can quickly recognize when men are manipulative, but this woman was simply mean. When we introduced her to coaches, they all said, “You can’t work with such a person”.

Yes, this is another exciting question, whether such leaders can be developed, for example, by psychotherapy or coaching. 

I think coaching is not enough for a really toxic leader, only psychotherapy can help. There are difficult personalities for whom team coaching could be an option, but those who are “hard core toxic”, they usually have a personality disorder in the background that needs proper treatment with a psychotherapist. 

And have you ever seen anyone going to a psychotherapist? Usually toxic leaders won’t acknowledge the fact that they are toxic, so they won’t accept any help. In fact, they may even consider it an offense to be called toxic. 

Yes, they usually don’t recognize that they are toxic and need help. These people are basically lacking any self-awareness and self-knowledge.

When will it become obvious that someone is “toxic”? During the job interview?

As they are very purposeful people, knowing clearly where they want to get to, they can hold back their ambitions for a while, and change their behaviour accordingly – that’s why it’s so scary. During the job interview, all you notice is that they have some brilliant insights, saying smart things, with a good sense of humour, so you fall in love with them quickly! You’ll get to know them later but in the beginning you won’t see their toxic behaviour, they have to cause some damage first to realize it.

And how will toxicity manifest in the workplace? What are the consequences of toxicity?  

At mid management level, toxic behaviour is more tolerated because they cannot effectively do so much harm to the company. They may be difficult managers, but they drive their teams to deliver good results. At a more senior level, however, the damage is far greater because power is more concentrated on the top. 

What are the signs of toxicity in the workplace? 

High employee turnover. People leave bad managers.

Is there a one-to-one correlation between high turnover and toxic leadership…? 

The best way to check it is to do a 360-degree performance assessment of the leader who is considered toxic, which they usually don’t like. You could also look at the turnover rate of their direct reports or peers. 

It’s interesting that you are mentioning this because we could assume the toxicity is directed more towards subordinates than peers. Does it affect one’s peers, too? 

Toxicity downwards mainly manifests itself in being a jerk with subordinates, treating them unfairly, making them fear of you, giving them ad-hoc instructions, and yelling at them, when being challenged. But toxic behaviour is a thousand times worse with peers. A toxic leader won’t make alliances with their fellow executives, they may backstab you – agreeing with you outside of the Boardroom, but attacking you in the Board in front of others. Competition among peers is much harder, because of the power struggle between them. You need to walk on eggshells with toxic people not to set them off. 

What is the endgame of all this, gaining more power?

Probably, yes. Because with such a behaviour they can extend their power beyond their peers’ areas. It all comes from their own insecurity, which is like a huge big hole that needs to be filled in with whatever comes their way.

So it is not enough to have a department of a thousand people, they need more to control…

Yes, indeed! That’s why it would be interesting to see their family life, too. Toxic behaviour also manifests in the family, when someone is abusive with their own children, favouring one over the other, or over controlling their spouse. Whether power is demonstrated in an “I can do whatever I want” behaviour or in manipulating others, the bottom line is that toxic people would usually do something that you don’t dare to do for ethical reasons. I met such leaders, who were abusive not only in the workplace, but with their family, too. Usually these people had some difficult childhood where they experienced neglect, and were treated with a “second-rated citizenship” in their own families. 

And what happens if the number one leader of the company, the CEO, has a dysfunctional personality, how will that affect the organization?

Obviously, it’s a very unfortunate situation, but often there’s some „protective shield” provided by senior leaders who do their best to prevent toxicity flowing down the entire organization.

The question is how long the system can maintain this “double” operation as it requires a lot of energy to keep away toxicity. How can you avoid this to happen at all?

You can’t avoid it, you get into it, and you have to deal with it. And then you either stay or leave. Firing such leaders may not be an option either, as some of them are truly powerful, and are also efficient in driving business results.

And where do you think the line is drawn between “toxic” and “successful” leadership? According to American researcher Lipman-Blumen, it is difficult to define a toxic leader because according to her “one’s toxic leader is another’s hero.” That’s why I’m interested in this topic, because of the leader’s Janus-like duality: they can be toxic with some but effective in other areas. 

They may look successful but it’s not their own merits. They are good at manipulating their people to achieve results but they steal the show from them.

Thank you for your answers on this topic, Julia, I have one last question for you. What challenges do you think leaders are facing today or in the future?

I don’t think there are enough leaders. In my experience and according to my own philosophy, there aren’t enough leaders on the market. That’s why HR is more and more considered as an internally outsourced function to carry out certain leadership related tasks that executives cannot do themselves. HR is doing 70% of the tasks that managers and leaders should perform on a daily basis because those in senior positions are lacking the necessary skills. They attend all kinds of leadership training, but nothing really changes. 

So lacking good leaders is the biggest challenge? 

That’s right! We need more of them, but they should be real leaders!

(Julia Füredi dr. is an organizational psychologist, and executive consultant, specialised in business transformations. She has 30 years of experiences as an HR executive in the financial sector in Hungary. She’s the founder of a tech start-up company, called SPARQ)

dr. Füredi Júlia 2019.09.19