TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting Toxicity


Every leader is susceptible to become a bad one, and more so the longer you are in a position of power and responsibility. With this inevitable battle ahead, counteracting toxicity should be one of your primary goals – and it starts with the person you see in the mirror. Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is joined by Kevin McDonald, University of Virginia’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Partnerships. Together, they talk about the necessary qualities of a successful leader and how to find red flags to root out before it is too late. Kevin McDonald explains the power of connecting with your team in a more personal way, helping them resolve conflicts and address issues. He also emphasizes the dangers of a close-minded leader who cannot accept criticisms and has no desire to serve others.

Listen to the podcast here:

Counteracting Toxicity Starts With You, Interviewing Kevin McDonald

Our guest is Kevin McDonald. He is the University of Virginia’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community Partnerships. He joined UVA after serving as the Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity at the University of Missouri System and the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Prior to the University of Missouri System and Flagship campus, McDonald held positions at several other organizations, including as Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion at Virginia Tech, as Associate Director for Compliance and Conflict Resolution at Johns Hopkins University and as a Campus Compliance Officer at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Prior to his higher education, McDonald worked for the US Department of Justice and for Network Solutions, Inc. McDonald holds a Law degree from the Ohio State University and a doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership from the University of Rochester. He received his undergraduate degree in Psychology from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Let’s get to it.

I’m excited to have you here. How are you doing?

I’m well, Kevin. It’s great to be here with you.

Before we jump into toxic leadership and leadership in general. I want to give you space and have everybody get to know you a little bit and share your story.

I held from Cleveland, Ohio, an only child son of an islander. My mother is from Bermuda. My father is from Jamaica. I have no idea what made them settle in cold Cleveland, Ohio but that is where I held from born and raised, undergrad in a small Liberal Arts in Michigan, law school at the Ohio State University and I got my Doctoral degree at the University of Rochester while I was a professional, a VP in this Diversity, Equity, Inclusion work.

There has to be continuous inner work and the challenge from your leadership team to continue to be self-reflective.

I operate from a space of trying to be a lady who’s authentic, transparent, engaged, doesn’t over promise and under deliver, who recognizes the importance of relationships, our degrees, our pedigree, all that stuff. Gets us to improve with our ability to develop and forge relationships with people at all levels to keeps us there and allows us to ascend.

I’ve utilized that for me wherever I’ve worked. I’ve had the great fortune of working at a number of higher ed institutions. Although, I got my start in the field of Investigating Complaints of Discrimination with Disabilities under the ADA or the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section.

I worked for a time in the internet world or the Silicon Valley of the East in Herndon for network solutions that registers all the dot-com, dot-net, dot-org names at the time. If my wife was here, she would say I owe my entire career to her. She found my first career in education at the University of Maryland, College Park and I fell in love with education and went from there.

Johns Hopkins from Johns Hopkins to Virginia Tech, from Virginia Tech to the Rochester Institute of Technology, from the Rochester Institute of Technology to the University of Missouri System and to the flagship campus there in Columbia. Now, I’m enjoying my time serving the University of Virginia and the local community here. It’s a good journey. I’ve never regretted any decision I’ve made, any place that I’ve worked and continued to learn and grow as a leader and support all of those that are served.

With that varied background, I’m sure you’ve run across some toxic situations, leaders and behaviors. Can you talk to me a little bit about when you think about toxic leadership. What comes to mind for you?

I think about people with the notion of power and control. They believe that is connected to strong leadership, that you can’t be vulnerable, can’t show any sign of weakness, can’t have an emotional connection with your team. That it’s often filled with keepers and those that can insulate you from engaging and leaning into difficult situations and conversations. There’s often filled with a level of micromanaging, allows you to be an equal-opportunity micromanager and creates constructively difficult places of employment. Difficult places where people aren’t waking up every day excited about going into their work.

Probably where they have to assimilate to the culture and check who they are when they enter those working environments. It prevents people from realizing their best by utilizing the skills, talents and abilities that they have and allowing them to interact, to create an enhanced result. I’ve seen toxic environments. I’ve been a part of toxic environments but what I appreciate most is I’ve tried to learn from those toxic environments so that I wouldn’t replicate them when I send them to some leadership role.

TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting Toxicity

Counteracting Toxicity: Toxic work environments prevent people from realizing their best. They cannot fully utilize their skills, talents, and abilities to create enhanced results.


I’ve tried to hold true to that and make sure that I’m staying humble and modest. I’m not being intoxicated by roles such that I forgot what has gotten me there. All of those are incredibly important. I try to grow in my leadership and continue to reflect on it. I both lived it in personal and professional experiences. I’ve shaped myself to be the leader that I am now.

I wanted to touch on something that you mentioned, on how people may assimilate into the culture. It sounds like that’s not what we want. We talk about inclusion all the time but on the back end some people feel like, “They want me to change myself and be what they want me to be and not who I am.” Share with me what are the antidotes to counteracting that form of toxicity like that mass assimilation that a lot of cultures look for but they don’t even know it.

If we’re an organization that espoused values, steeped in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it can’t be that and have an action that matches that type of rhetoric, which preaches a simulation. What we’re trying to do, ultimately, if we’re seeing the true benefits of diversity, which for me is the various mix of combinations of human differences. If we’re talking about that and inclusion, it’s how are we leveraging those differences. How are we optimizing? Are we utilizing those differences in a way that those possessing them feel valued, respected and engaged but also in ways that move the organization forward? To do that effectively, you can’t ask people to change who they are, to not ultimately utilize those amazing skills, talents and abilities that you tout.

You want them to assimilate to an existing culture. You’re not leveraging it as a result. You can’t be as productive. You can’t achieve the overarching organizational excellence that you seek because you’re not ultimately inextricably binding your diversity equity inclusion efforts to that goal. It’s important but I also think that you can tell a lot by those organizations that are steeped in rhetoric are those that have an action that matches that rhetoric.

One thing that reminded me when you were illustrating that was a lot of times people are uncomfortable with literally differences especially when the power comes along. How do you think you counteract that?

I talk about this a lot in higher education I got in this. Quite honestly, I’m sure it’s applicable to any context and then we tout the importance of diversity. One of the things that we don’t do the best job of is equipping our employees, students, faculty, whomever the constituents are that make up our organization with the skills, talents and abilities to navigate that difference. Bringing people together with different perspectives of the world with different lived experiences and we’re dropping them off and say, “Go work.”

One of the things that I’m a big proponent of our equipment people with strong conflict resolution skills or general conflict resolution skills. Those with social justice-minded conflict resolution skills understand the impact, power, privilege that isms can impact on people from telling their stories than narrative one comes little prizes.

Employees don’t want to be part of issue identification. They want to be part of solution identification and advisory roles.

If you can’t do that and you can’t seek to understand the other’s point of view from that lens then ultimately, you won’t be able to resolve the conflict that brought you to that particular point in time. It’s a huge issue. Rooted with an understanding of diversity but now have the skills to navigate that difference. That’s incredibly important for organizations. If they’re committed to this work.

I’ve seen, when we look at diversity, equity, inclusion or whatever acronym you want to bring up. People tend to say, “We got our diversity. Look at our website,” but then they throw the inclusion out the window because that’s hard. That requires you to look at yourself in the mirror and check your own ego leader. The leader has to check their ego. Let’s say I’m a leader of an organization now and I want to go from not values on the wall to action. I want to look at inclusion but what am I doing? What inner work do I have to do?

Part of the inner work is also reflecting on your own biases that you have your own maybe lack of exposure to the difference they may have brought you to that point. You want to continue to grow and learn. One of the biggest Achilles’ heels in leaders is once they receive that leadership title, they’re in that role. They’ve arrived. When we’re learning that needs to happen and we’re always evolving. We’re always learning, no matter how successful you are, either your own definition or other.

You’re right. There has to be that continuous inner work, that challenge of those on your leadership team to continue to be self-reflective themselves as well. You want to be self-reflective and organizationally reflective on your own organization’s journey towards inclusion. If you want to truly figure out how to leverage those differences. There was a faculty member that created this continuum said, “Organizations are at any one point along this continuum and their organizational journey towards inclusion.”

They’re a monocultural organization, quiet by homogeneity or one perspective. One aspect of diversity that dominates, maybe there is a compliant organization doing the bare minimum, the standard legal problem. There are multicultural. One has figured out how to celebrate diversity but hasn’t figured out how to leverage them or they’re an inclusive one, the utopic, one of them all. They’ve figured out how to leverage them to move that organization for one doing that is listening to your employees. Trying to figure out what they value, what organizational environments allow them to bring their whole selves to build a sense of belonging, which means we continue to connect with productivity.

Trying to work to co-create. The biggest leadership problem is if the leader says, “I’ve listened to my employees. Now, let me go back in this back room and create what I’ve heard.” What you need to realize is that employees don’t want to be part of the issue identification. They also want to be part of the solution identification. They need to be part of that advisory role.

That notion of leaning into co-creation is an engagement plus. Not only engaging them to listen and actively listen. Now, what do you do with that but bring them with you. That notion of lifting as you climb. Those are important parts of that process self-reflect organizationally reflect and listen to your employees, co-create and power outcomes.

TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting Toxicity

Counteracting Toxicity: Doing enough to keep yourself from being sued is not enough to figure out what makes your employees tick, or what makes them happy and sad.


I know that continuum, the inclusive organization going from that. One of the things is on there that I saw when I first looked at it, I said, “There are so many organizations that are compliance organizations that think they’re all the way at the end of the continuum.” Would you agree with that? Do you have any notion?

There are some organizations that said, “If I’m doing the bare minimum to stay out of legal trouble then I must be on the right track towards inclusion.” There’s a whole lot of continuums left if we reach that. Doing enough that keeps you from being sued is not ultimately still listening to your employees to figure out what makes them tick, happy and sad. What organizational environments bring their best outright?

What are the differences that are most salient to them? How many leaders have we known that have asked us about our own personal background? I don’t know that I can tell you a leader that knows that I have Caribbean roots, that I’m an only child, that knows about ed, that I was evicted when I was sixteen, that knows what has shaped the drive and determination in me to make me who I am.

How can that be valued as a strength and an asset? Not a demerit within an organization. Those leaders can go and take that time to get to know your employees, not just their first names but ultimately their makeup. It allows you to start to think about those interdisciplinary experiences that might bring the best employees together to leverage.

Those skills, talents and abilities that you know more of now because you’ve talked and actively listened to understand that. They feel a connection so that breeds loyalty, retention and not attrition. There’s a lot of pluses but there are a lot of leaders that do not associate that with the time that they have to give and with impacting positively the bottom line of the organization.

What you’re illustrating is the fact that a lot of leaders rest on maybe the skills that got them in the role but then don’t evolve as leaders to lead. As a leader, “I’m not going to co-create because I feel like I have all the answers.” When in reality, I tell people in delegation, even if you have the answers, give opportunity, create an environment where there’s an opportunity for others to learn.

Why would anyone want to be led by you? Answer that question as who believes that a leadership that isn’t engaged, caring and considered and wanting to create environments that allow our employees to be the most productive, you can’t answer that question then. Ultimately, you’re failing in leadership.

Poor leaders could never look in the mirror and challenge themselves to be better and do better.

There’s another book by a faculty member by the name of Scott Page called the Difference. It’s fascinating because his research has shown that diverse teams in perspective and composition outperform homogeneous ones time. In order to know if that is true, you submit that and you look at the research then how do you leverage those differences? That is dropping them off and say, “Go be great.” How do you leverage and cultivate the differences to positively impact the bottom line of the organization?

If you look at the transformational research line, it talks a lot about inspiration to get to success and your outcomes or what have you. To be frank, that takes it out of what the leader knows or who the leader is and all that. It’s how the leader treats me as the main barometer because as you said, retention engagement, all of that will go up based on how the treatment is.

It sounds like relationship building and that emotional intelligence is the steel we’re talking about. When we think about the toxic workplaces, different experiences you might’ve had, especially when you work on Civil Rights, what have you seen as like a warning sign or like a red flag to be like, “This leader or this environment is something different and this is cause for concern.” What would you say?

The leaders that believe that their roles define them, that they don’t define the roles. They are in those roles and now they’ve arrived. Some of the things we had talked about before, there are some leaders or leaders who have not had good mentors. Some leaders have engaged with mentors who never told them that their stuff gets thick. They were always the end-all and be-all. That’s in their mind. They believe that whatever that has gotten to that point based on the level of affirmation that they received from mentors, that’s the way to ultimately lead an organization. That’s problematic.

Quite honestly, there may be those that have modeled problematic leadership behavior who have said, “You need to be autocratic. You need to lead with power and control. You need to put your foot on their neck and don’t let them breathe until they do what you tell them to do.” Number 1) That level of dictatorship is so archaic. Number 2) It’s difficult to sustain. Number 3) It’s exacerbated when you are a leader from some certain identity groups. If you are a leader of color and you’re trying to do that, not sustain in that.

If you asked me when I engaged in this work, there was an expectation from some that I was going to be a hell-raiser. I said, “That may allow us to get some movement on these issues. It will be very difficult to sustain in that role.” I always tell people, “I’m not a hell-raiser. I’m a consensus builder.” That’s incredibly important for me in this work but I also think it’s universal in its application and can help other leaders as well. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be direct. That doesn’t mean that you can’t hold people accountable but it does mean that you value the input of everybody.

You can leverage that and have a great dialogue to lead you to what ultimately will be an informed decision leading to a positive outcome because you’ve taken in very diverse perspectives. There are a lot of leaders that don’t do that. The last thing is they play the blame game. Even when there’s adversity, even when they vowed on it, they point the finger. They could never ultimately look in the mirror and challenge themselves to be better and do better at that moment. They could never go back and reflect right on the decision that they’ve made and, by chance, attribute them to being poor decisions. That’s problematic nature and problematic characteristics.

TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting Toxicity

Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

There’s a very clear reason why they say culture starts at the top. That quote is not meaning like your top leader or whatever is the say-all and be-all of your cultures per se. It is saying, “Your top-level leader will control how the culture shows up,” because they were reacting based on the leader.

Do you remember, I don’t know if it’s a leader, he has now a couple of maybe two different locations but there was a leader that was making a million dollars and took a pay cut to save a few thousand?

It’s in Seattle.

When I think about the culture that that person created and by saying, “I am going to spread this wealth to the employees.” I can only imagine the tuition is low, the feeling of self-worth is high, the loyalty of retention, commitment, productivity so much that story was said with one office and now he’s opened up a second one.

He also increased the minimum wage to the same thing 70,000 as well. I follow them on LinkedIn and I’d read his stories all the time.

That’s fascinating but to me, that’s leadership. That’s continuing to reflect on how can I be better, do better, serve others at this moment? Not only is it the right thing to do but at the end of the day, it is going to make us a better organization. They put those 2 in 2 together. That was what some toxic leaders are not able to do. They are still adding 2 and 2 and saying, “That doesn’t equal for them.”

It’s all about them. One thing you said that I want to test because I love it, is value people’s opinions. You want to make sure you value people’s opinions. One thing that I talked about with people is you can value opinions and we don’t have to agree. That’s better. I don’t want group thinks and I don’t want that conformity. Talk to me about and I’m curious, why do you think people want consensus? Not even consensus. They only want an agreement. They only want everybody to agree with them. Talk to me about that.

They don’t associate strong leadership with being challenged, being critiqued. You can’t be open to critique because that’s going to make you seem like you’re a weak leader that you don’t know what you’re doing. You were supposed to be an expert in this space. How can you lead if you’re a team that’s supposed to be following you, doesn’t agree with everything you say? That can’t be conceivably true leadership. It’s an Achilles’ heel.

It’s so incredibly problematic and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen spaces where someone has said in a room that I was in, “Any of those that disagree with me, I’m willing to take your resignation and give you a pink slip on the spot.” I’ve also seen others where leaders have given full presentations on the expectations of people conforming to the belief of the leader. Any of those that can conform to this way of doing things should probably start identifying another place of employment.

Successful leaders need to be transparent and practice integrity. You can’t over promise and under deliver.

That level of toxicity, those examples you described trickled down to every facet of your organization because it then becomes a safety mechanism now. As a defense mechanism like, “I better do that.”

I cannot either afford to lose my job. I’m in a situation where I may be principled and feel like I’m a person of integrity and I don’t want to work where I’m not valued or work where I’m controlled. I don’t have the luxury of being able to walk away from a job and it’s easy to get a job when you have a job. All of these considerations, going through people’s minds. I might as well rant and bear it because there’s not a better solution.

Maybe hope that the leader leaves or something happens. It’s so problematic for me because I wake up every day and maybe in this idealistic space of wanting to positively impact the lives of people on my team and outside of it. The team matters. Whatever’s going on in their life matters. I want to alleviate those pressure points and bottlenecking points for them. I want them to always be excited about coming to work. I want them to feel that they can bring their wholesales because if they can do those things, they’re the most productive.

You will see the benefits that we all want is of retention and working above and beyond because you want them to go above and beyond. Not based on what fear of what will happen to them but based on them wanting to do it. They’re inspired to do it. They’re proud to do it. That’s what makes the right environment. This has been awesome. I appreciate your insights. One of the things I want to lift up before we go. If you have any words of wisdom, you want to leave. You’ve dropped a lot of great jewels and gave us a lot of great advice on your leadership style and what you see as some antidotes to some toxicity. What would you leave us with?

One of the mainstays for me as a leader is leaders nowadays, to be truly successful leaders, it’s okay to be vulnerable. You need to be transparent. You need to practice integrity. You can’t over promise and under deliver. I give people something to believe in, say what they mean and do and act. Have that action that matches that rhetoric. All of those things are incredibly important.

The questions we have to ask ourselves as leaders are, “Do I want to be serviceable? Do I want to be transcended?” If we want to be transcended, we have to lean into those softer pieces, those stronger interpersonal communication skills recognizing the importance of relationships. I remember presenting to a group of staff.

At the end of my presentation, there was a staff member that said, “I want to affirm you because ever since you’ve been here, you’re the only Vice President who will speak to staff every day no matter what.” I was in a VP role at the time. There are VPs and leadership roles that some will pass by depending on whether we had a status that was as high enough for them to look up and respond to. Everybody, every employee, regardless of their title, the work they did was important enough for me to speak to. That struck me. I’ll never forget that. That was years ago.

TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting Toxicity

Counteracting Toxicity: It is problematic for leaders to believe that their success is only based on the level of affirmation they received from mentors.


It also cemented in me that is the way we all should be as leaders. I wasn’t doing it for affirmation. I was doing it because I care about people and I felt like it was the right thing to do. I have no idea what they’re going through. If I was the only person that they were going to come in contact with, that I was going to smile and care and ask them how they were doing, I want it to be consistent in their lives and knowing that. We have to commit ourselves as leaders to continue to go above and beyond and truly represent what we think iconic leaders should be.

That’s a great example and a good illustration of everything we talked about. How can people reach you? That questions, one to connect.

On Instagram I’m @DrKevinMcDonald. On Twitter, @KevinMCD10. They can always reach me on Gmail, or they can find me on UVA‘s Website. It’s been great spending some time with you, Kevin. I appreciate your leadership in this space. You continue to want to engage in important discussions that can help transform an organization. Continue to do your work. It’s impacting the lives of people.

Thank you. It’s so great to talk to you and I hope to bring you back. We can break bread again. Thank you for reading Toxic Leadership Show. Until next time.

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About Kevin McDonald

TTLS S1 18 | Counteracting ToxicityKevin McDonald is the University of Virginia’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Partnerships. He joined UVA after serving as the chief diversity officer and vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity, and equity at the University of Missouri System and the University of Missouri – Columbia

Prior to the University of Missouri System and Flagship campus, McDonald held positions at several other universities, including as vice president and associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology, Vice President for equity and inclusion at Virginia Tech, as associate director for compliance and conflict resolution at Johns Hopkins University, and as campus compliance officer at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to his work in higher education, McDonald worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and for Network Solutions, Inc.

McDonald holds a law degree from The Ohio State University and a doctoral degree in higher education leadership from the University of Rochester. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.