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Root canals are like handling toxic leadership

March 14, 2022

Root canals can be extremely painful. They’re the mouth surgery of urban legend. Now, I’m no dentist. But if you’ve been fortunate to not have this happen to you, a root canal stops an infection in the pulp of a tooth (where the nerves, connective tissues, and blood vessels that help a tooth grow live). This procedure helps protect and preserve the natural tooth.

If you’re suffering from an infection that requires a root canal any other actions you try won’t do you any good. Antibacterial mouthwash, brushing your teeth multiple times a day, and flossing are good habits—but they can’t address the “root” cause.

As organizations try to come to grips with a structural reduction in the labor force, increasing turnover and retentions issues, I see repeated attempts to implement solutions that are tantamount to rinsing, brushing, and flossing.

Adjusting pay, allowing more flexible work schedules, tweaking vacation, personal, or sick days, and a myriad of other benefits.

These certainly aren’t bad things, but they don’t get to the root cause of high employee turnover and poor retention. Here’s the root cause:

Toxic leadership. Shocker, right?

And it’s going to be painful, difficult, no fun, challenging, and uncomfortable to deal with. Especially in longtime leaders who’ve learned and perpetuated toxic traits. I’m specifically thinking about pride and selfishness.

Like poking the raw nerve in a root canal, this will be painful because it’s more than just a critique of professionalism, it’s personal. There has to be ownership on the leader’s part to change their ways. Some will be unwilling to change and if they can’t or won’t—they must be removed. That’ll be painful. Others will be willing to change but it’ll take time and will be hard on many people.

And that’s likely the reason so many organizations are unwilling to eliminate toxic leadership behaviors. It’s time-consuming, costly, and just too painful. But not dealing with these issues hurts employee morale and engagement. (And if you’re going through a lot of employee turnover, you’re about fork over a lot more money.)

Does your organization need a root canal? To get yours started it’s got to come from the top. Your CEO (or whoever sits in the big offices) must want, drive, and perpetually pursue that change. If they don’t, the organization will wither and die from the inside out.


Jeff Custer is a long-time leader at both private and Fortune 500 companies where he has developed and led both high performance individuals and teams. He is passionate about developing leaders and building high impact teams. Jeff resides in the United States.

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