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The Guru: Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

This series of articles explores the toxic behavior profiles that persistently generate workplace conflict and provides tips on how to respond.

In Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.

Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.

Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.

Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.

Code Name: The Guru

Motto: Be free by depending on me.

Favorite Song: This

Favorite Movie: The Master

Behavior: All leaders must be teachers. However, on the road becoming a great teacher some are seduced down the fragrant dead-end alley of guru-hood.

We sometimes use the word “guru” in a way that is informal and innocuous. In everyday parlance we might use the term refer to someone we greatly respect, who has real expertise and a passion for helping others, as a “guru”. That informal shorthand is not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, I’m talking about the murky line that exists just at the edge of being a great teacher. On one side of the line is an inspiring collection of experienced leaders who have devoted their lives to helping others to build expertise and apply it creatively in their own lives.

On the other side of the line, and just a few steps away, is a small collection of narcissists who inspire personal devotion and dependency instead of growth and development.

I’ve been involved in building education and coaching services for professionals for the better part of two decades. One time, early in building a new program, a colleague and I were in negotiations with the CEO of another company who was interested in collaborating with us on the project. This CEO was the founder a well-known professional development platform. Over the course of several years, he had attracted a small group of committed students.

While we were getting to know one another, the discussions increasingly turned to our respective educational philosophies and modalities. In particular, it became apparent that this CEO was uncomfortable with my organization’s openness to working with a diverse swath of professionals and leaders.

My organization offered very specific assistance in learning how to better form and manage relationships. However, we did very little picking and choosing of who we “allowed” to attend our professional development events.

In contrast, even though this CEO’s organization taught very similar content, he insisted that instruction should only be offered to a select few. He believed that what he had to offer was so unique, so valuable and deep, that it should not be offered to “just anyone”.

I responded that this stance might be more understandable if we were providing education around highly specialized topics that required concrete and specific background knowledge. However, we were teaching relationship building; not string theory or nuclear physics. We certainly had a specific target population in mind, but as long as the professional had some humility and a sincere desire to learn, we saw no reason to turn that person away.

He was adamant. He wanted a special program for special people; even though he couldn’t quite define just who these special people were. In fact, he concluded by asserting that even among the people that enter his program, “only about ten percent of them actually get it.” By “it” he meant the depth of what he had to teach.

My colleague responded to the CEO, “Honestly, if only ten percent of your students understand what you teach… I don’t think the problem is your students.” Needless to say, that was our last meeting with this guru.

What can we learn from this little parable about the difference between teachers and gurus? Here’s a few contrasts:

Teachers help students to believe in themselves. Gurus want people to believe in them. After an excellent learning experience with a great teacher, participants should be talking about themselves, the group experience and what they learned. After a learning experience led by a guru, students tend to talk about how amazing the guru is… They will want to relive those feelings by being with the guru again and again; to get another fix.

Great teachers develop intimacy that moves towards equity. They want their students to eventually become equals and teachers themselves. Gurus have lopsided relationships marked by power imbalances that are forever tipped in the guru’s favor.

Teachers simplify. Gurus mystify. I’m sure that the CEO with whom I was negotiating was telling the truth when they said that only ten percent of their students “actually get it.” However, the guru’s student’s didn’t fail to understand because the guru was so deep. The students “failed” because the guru insisted on injecting artificial complexity into potentially simple ideas and concepts. He then used that complexity to keep his students “on the hook”.

Teachers encourage freedom. Gurus breed dependence. Gurus keep the focus on themselves and promote artificial complexity in order to promote and protect their artificial value. There’s always an element of confusion and mystery when learning from a guru; always more around the corner, through mist, or in the “next level” event. Register now!

Instead of examining the teaching method or teacher, students are encouraged to blame themselves if they do not yet understand. Thus, there’s always another layer of teaching that guru needs to offer before you “fully” get it.

This breeds dependency at best and cultish devotion at worst.

Do Not: When facing a leader in the workplace who has positioned themselves as a guru, do not placate their delusions. Harsh as it might seem, my colleague’s blunt statement that the problem was the guru and not his students, was the right approach.

Do not allow a guru to be a master over their own institutional silo. Gurus crave a dedicated group of followers. They don’t want students. They want acolytes. If given too much independence, the bubble around the guru can thicken into an impenetrable fortress. Break down the walls.

Finally, do not expect the guru’s followers to support you at first. Some people actually crave a relationship with a guru. It can be very attractive to believe that all one needs to do to be fulfilled, find purpose, or achieve success, is to follow another “enlightened” human being in possession of some great knowledge, expertise, or secret. This allows the follower to trade the riskiness of personal development and responsibility-taking for the safety of personality worship.

Do: Make obvious and public examples that everyone in the organization must be open to challenge, examination and questions; especially would-be gurus. Gurus and their followers tend to generate a toxic norm that the guru should not (or worse, cannot) be questioned. Do the opposite. Challenge and question them publicly. In less serious cases, this alone can be enough the break the spell.

Put the guru in the position of student. Ask them to discuss their weaknesses and that they be explicit about what they are learning and where they intend to grow. Insist that they share these plans publicly with their team and those around them; something that all leaders should be comfortable doing in a healthy and developmental organizational culture.

In the final analysis, always remember that any great teacher can be tempted to become a guru.

The first piece of advice I give anyone who is setting out to become a mentor, teacher or leader of others is this:

Don’t try to be famous. Try to be useful. Don’t breed a herd of followers. Build a learning community instead. Be a leader, not a guru.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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