With Martin G. Moore

Episode #238

Navigating Toxic Work Cultures & Office Politics: A Q&A with Marty & Em

Leadership drives culture, culture drives performance.

In this Q&A episode, we look at a few very common team culture dynamics, and give some perspectives for how you might be able to handle these situations, when you find yourself in the middle of them.

The first is the incredibly common phenomenon of the supposed star performer who “manages up” brilliantly, but doesn’t actually deliver… and the boss is too weak or too conflict-averse to hold them to account. They’d rather let the rest of the team bear the brunt, as long as the work is getting done somehow.

The second focuses on organizational politics, and how deceptive behavior can be leveraged for advantage by those who concentrate more on politics than value creation.

As you might imagine, we get a LOT of questions from our listeners on these team dynamics… so to help me answer a few of them today, welcome back to the microphone, CEO of YCM, producer of the NBL podcast, Em.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #238 Navigating Toxic Work Cultures & Office Politics: A Q&A with Marty & Em

Em: Hello, hello. Great to be back on the podcast, and yes, we get so many questions like this coming through, so I’m very excited to tackle these ones today.

Marty: Yeah, I know. Look, they’re incredibly common, aren’t they? But they’re hard to navigate. These situations are tricky, and I know from experience that you saw a bit of this in your short, but stellar corporate career, didn’t you?

Em: Unfortunately, I did. I saw quite a bit of this. In one role in particular, I had a boss who was an absolute loose cannon, super erratic. They came from the world of PR, so their special talent was being able to spin anything into a positive, be it true or not. So managing clients and upper management with lies and spin, was a daily occurrence, and those clients and upper management, they couldn’t see that this person was hugely toxic and not actually doing the work that they said they were.

Marty: Oh, it’s so common.

Em: Yeah, it is common. It was incredibly difficult to work under someone like that and be able to deliver exceptional results as well. So safe to say, I was very glad to put that boss and job behind me when I moved on to better things.

Marty: What do you mean, working with me? Absolutely.

Em: It was a little earlier in my career before that.

Marty: That’s true. No, a great story, Em. So why don’t you get to the first question? It’s a cracker.

Em: Yeah, so this one’s from Julia. All right. It’s a bit of a long one.

those who overpromise and underdeliver…

In our leadership team, certain people quickly nominate themselves to lead new projects and then they don’t deliver, leaving other people to bring it over the line. This creates a lot of frustration in the department, especially for those who have to rescue the project at the end.

There are no consequences for the people who seek out the limelight, and then don’t deliver.

I gave this feedback to our VP: the people who aren’t delivering don’t even have to face tough feedback, let alone any real consequences. Then, the VP asked me what I thought might be appropriate consequences in these situations. What do you think, Marty?

Marty: Well, this question’s going to allow me to explore a bunch of different aspects because this is more common than you might think. First of all, let’s just talk about the cultural norms and differences.

So given that Julia is in Europe, the labour laws and management customs are often different and quite often, they’re more restrictive than in other countries.

One of my good friends from Harvard Business School, Giome, was a chief executive in France, and he told me that he used to spend at least 30% of his time dealing with labour unions, and that’s unbelievable in terms of time consumption. But, if you think about France versus Australia or the UK or South Africa, a very, very different environment. Now, even my clients in New Zealand tell me that it’s getting harder and harder culturally to manage performance based on the labour laws. So I say go with the culture, but don’t be a slave to it.

Em: What do you mean by that?

Marty: Well, look, it’s really all about risk and you’ve just got to push the boundaries a little bit more, I think whatever those boundaries are and wherever you find them. One of the things that I did in CS Energy because it was a very unionized environment, was to say to line management and HR, “You’ve got to take a few risks and I’m prepared to take a few risks, and if it so happens that we lose a few cases in the Fair Work Commission, well, so be it. But we’ve got to send a message that says, ‘This is not okay,’ and the workforce needs to hear that message.”

Em: That’s awesome, Marty. So there’s the culture. What about this VP because to me, it sounds like Julia’s boss is a little weak.

Marty: Just a little, and I think this is just a classic case of conflict diversion. This boss could be a really great person, but avoiding a one-on-one and putting any greater consequences in place, is a sure sign that that person isn’t a comfortable leader. It could be a great person, a smart person, a strategic thinker, who knows. But in these circumstances, eventually, the good people are going to leave. They just are. Even if you come up with an answer that you know can go back to your boss and say, “Okay, how about we try these consequences?” I would be really surprised if your boss implemented them. So, Julia, you’re sort of between a rock and a hard place here.

Em: It sounds like this VP needs to do module two, How to Handle Conflict of Leadership Beyond the Theory.

Marty: Yeah, or just listen to a couple of podcast episodes. How hard can it be?

Em: So what would be the appropriate consequences if this were you, Marty?

Marty: Well look, I think once is an accident, twice is a pattern. So if it’s happening all the time, I’d say the first thing is give one-on-one feedback. That’s the very first thing, and then stop giving them projects. If they take on projects and don’t deliver them, just stop giving them to them, and reward those who do come in and actually save the day. Give them the opportunities, the pay rises, the promotions, and the professional development. So there’s a whole range of ways, not just to deal with the people who aren’t delivering but to reward those who are.

Em: Okay. So what about the team culture? We’ve spoken about this before. There are some cultures that get, I suppose, a bit addicted to the adrenaline of having to rush in, save the day, all the work behind the scenes in a panic, when that’s not actually how projects should be delivered.

Marty: No, and as I like to say, really, really well-run businesses are actually quite boring because you don’t have crises coming all the time. You actually find the issues in advance. You manage the risks, and you don’t let these fall into crises. So the culture’s a real problem because those who aren’t performing are getting away with it, and the people who are stepping in aren’t being recognised for it, but this talks to the dynamics of over-functioning of your peers as well.

Over-functioning of your peers and going in to rescue them is a high-risk strategy for a number of reasons. So they’re sitting back there. If you go in and interfere, then there are two possible outcomes. If everything goes really, really well, the person who took the initial accountability will say, “Hey, look, I got this done. How good is it?” and your contribution won’t be recognised. If it all falls to shit, they’ll say, “Hey, it was going fine until Marty stepped in and screwed it up,” and you wear the consequences for it.

So politically, it’s really difficult. It’s a high-risk strategy and more than anything else, it distracts from your job. So if you are out doing someone else’s job for them and helping them where they’re not delivering, what are you doing with your own job? This is a real derailer.

Em: Yeah, and you’ve seen this quite a bit, haven’t you? So what should you do instead?

Marty: I know this is going to sound terrible, but you’ve got to let them fail. You’ve got to actually let them stuff up and fall over, and it’s not your job to make it work. Now, I know that really good people are always thinking about what’s best for the organisation and how to make the organisation better, but if you keep stepping in, things will never change. Until there’s a crisis, you’ve got to just exercise that real restraint, that real discipline and stand back. It’s not your job, it’s your boss’s job to bring that into line.

It’s the same when one of your people isn’t doing their job. You can go in and do it for them and compensate for them and dip down, but that person will never improve and the lack of performance will never become obvious and apparent to everyone else. So this is like a peer-to-peer version of dipping down, and I would say, don’t do it. Stand back. Advise your boss accordingly. Help where you can, but don’t take accountability for something that’s not your accountability.

Em: Yeah, that’s so true, Marty. Julia, I don’t know if that helps, but we’ve given you a lot of food for thought there to go through and I’m interested to know what happened. Let us know. Make sure you email us and let us know what that VP actually decides to do.

Marty: Totally. It’d be interested to hear that one.

Em: Yeah. Okay, let’s go on to the next question. Question two is from Janelle. Oh, we’ve got two Js, Julia and Janelle. All right.

deceptive behaviour

I’d love to hear about handling deceptive behaviour in the workplace. What are some of the ways you can handle other teams and leaders who are consistently deceptive on need-to-know information?

Em: Janelle, this sounds very similar to the scenario that I spoke through in the introduction.

Marty: It is actually, yeah, and that wasn’t rehearsed either. Janelle, this is the sort of stuff they don’t teach you about in business school, and I know you have an MBA from one of the best schools in the US. Large organisations are rife with politics and it can get really, really ugly.

So let’s start with a look at politics in general. Now, some people naturally gravitate towards it, and I suspect this happens early in their career when they realise that they’re getting outperformed by others, and they’re getting beaten out to promotions.

I saw this a number of times in my career, but one example that stands out is that a business I worked in had a very, very senior leader who was as dumb as a box of hammers. He’d realised over the years, obviously, that because he wasn’t as smart as the average bear, that the way he would gain a foothold in corporate life because he was very ambitious, would be to out-politic everyone else, and he was a dead set genius.

He was slimy, he couldn’t be trusted as far as you could throw him, but he had the ear of the boss, and he was really, really good at it.

Em: Ugh, yucky. I’m feeling yucky just listening to that.

Marty: I know, I know, I feel like a shower too. This is the trouble when you get ambition combined with underperformance, you end up with someone who’s a politician. They spend a lot of time thinking about how to gain an advantage, and this is what’s normally at the core of their deceptive behaviour or any deceptive behaviour that you see.

Em: Yeah, too true. Janelle asked about handling the need-to-know information though. How does that play out in terms of politics because some stuff genuinely is need-to-know?

Marty: Yeah, it is but it sounds like, from what Janelle said, that this organisation is an organisation that values knowledge and hoards knowledge. So I think I’ve mentioned before in a podcast, probably years ago, about the difference between a knowing organisation and a learning organisation. One of the biggest turnaround things that I had to do when I was in any of those businesses that I worked in, was moving it from a knowing organisation where knowledge was power, to a learning organisation where people would learn and grow and try things and take the organisation forward, rather than being stuck in the past.

Great book, which I’ll refer you to. It’s called The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, which is the classic that talks about learning versus knowing organisations. In a knowing organisation, they value expert power.

Knowledge is power.

Holding onto knowledge and a knowledge edge can be a political advantage. So this is a classic in engineering-based companies. The answer is, stop rewarding knowledge. Knowledge is an input, it’s not an output. It’s what you do with that, that matters.

Em: Such a great point. So how can you deal with other teams that are deceptive? So it’s not your team, it’s someone over there doing something else wrong.

Marty: Well, I guess there’s no substitute for performance. So you’ve got to show up everyone else around you by the fact that your team actually nails it and creates enormous value. If there’s another team hampering your performance, then you’ve got to take it up with them. If that fails, you’ve got to go upstairs to your boss or their boss, but not until you tell that person who’s obstructing you that you’re going to do that.

So when you do this, you don’t complain. You don’t say, “Oh, Marty won’t do what I want him to do.” You just stick to the facts. So for example, here’s a classic conversation I’ve had a number of times:

Jeff, I’m relying on Marty’s team to provide this input or information to me, and this is proving to be harder to get than I expected. Now I’m working through these issues with Marty, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up in case I can’t convince Marty to do his part. And look, if his priorities are more critical than mine, that’s fine, just let me know and I’ll ease back.”

Em: Right, and what happens if you get completely blindsided? You might think that you’ve got all the information, but by the time you find out that the other team has held out on you, it’s too late to avert the problem.

Marty: Yeah, this one can be a lot harder. So you need to make it clear that the other leader or team has held out on you. But once again, you don’t want to be seen as being a complainer or by blaming them even. You can’t blame them directly.

It’s a bit tricky but here’s a suggestion. Now, what I used to do in the past was to describe this as a communication breakdown. So you’re not actually throwing it straight at their doorstep, but everyone knows how to read between the lines on this.

So for example, “Jeff, look, this information came to light quite late and if we were aware of it, obviously, we would’ve made different decisions on the way through. Now, I’m not interested in postmortems, but I am interested in working out what we can do in the future to avoid this type of communication breakdown.

Em: Very good.

Marty: So what you’re doing, you’re future-proofing the situation. They might get away with it once, but they certainly won’t get away with it twice because this opens the door to your upline conversation that says, “Look, this has happened again, and I’m beginning to think it’s more than just a coincidence.”

Em: Oh, Marty, you’ve got so many great one-liners here and it’s super practical. So hopefully, Janelle can take that away and do something with it.

Marty: Yeah, I certainly hope so. Look, all of these one-liners, it’s just because I’ve lived the dream, and spending years in large corporations dealing with office politics and the people who are infused by it, it has certainly given me some skills, let me tell you.

Em: Yeah, I love it. Well, thank you for sharing those skills with us, Marty. Once again, we have tackled a couple of big topics on the dark side of organisational culture and, hopefully, that was useful to Julia, Janelle, and everyone listening.

So thank you again for sending in such great questions. As always, if you’d like us to cover something specific on the podcast, something that you are going through at work, just shoot us an email here or reach out to us on any of the social channels, and we will add your question to the Q&A list because Marty and I absolutely love doing these ones.


  • Ep #168: Political Sabotage at Work – Listen Here

  • The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge Book – Check it out on Amazon


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start Now

  • Check out our 8-week online leadership program, Leadership Beyond the TheoryLearn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership