TTLS S2 3 | Work Boundaries


Lonnie Morris was a fun guest to chat with, he is the author of “When Leadership Fails: Individual, Group and Organizational Lessons from the Worst Workplace Experiences.”

This episode is important because of Lonnie’s tremendous insight into boundaries as well as his expertise in leading in the virtual environment.


The Toxic Leadership Podcast

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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.

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How Can Boundaries Improve Your Work? An Interview With Lonnie Morris Jr., Ph.D.

Dr. Lonnie Morris is a seasoned scholar-practitioner with years of leadership and service to higher education in an array of administrative consulting and teaching capacities. This episode is important because of the depth of experience that Lonnie brings as he has coached, trained, and taught managers and executives around the world. I was intrigued by his expertise and leadership in the virtual environment. That’s what connected us originally. I’m excited to cross paths with him and I’m sure you will be, too.

In this episode, we have Lonnie Morris. How are you?

I’m great. I’m glad to be here.

I’m so happy to be able to talk to you to dig in about when leadership fails and highlighting some different points in organizational culture that we need to watch for but before we get into that, I would love for the readers to get an opportunity to know about who you are and why you do the work that you do?

The easy answer is, like most people who are probably reading a blog about Toxic Leadership, I started hating the people at work. I knew that it had to be a better way. My professional background now is I’m a Management Consultant and Professor. Most of the work I do is around leadership behavior and, I used to say, in virtual learning and workspaces. I still do a lot of that but everybody is in virtual work and learning spaces now.

I do a lot of consulting and coaching people in those spaces. My professional background before moving into consulting and being a professor was in university administration. I came up in the ranks of enrollments, so all the things you love about getting people into college and helping them pay for it, I was doing that work. While I was a good Enrollment Manager and had a fantastic career in that, I was always a better manager of people. We think about the traditional matrices that we see about task orientation and people orientation.

I was always people-oriented and learned early that building great relationships, treating people the way you wanted to be treated, and helping people maximize their own success may be getting tasks accomplished easily. I ventured into a Master’s in Org Development and then a PhD in Org Leadership because I was always fascinated around the org dynamics and how people engage across the space. To my earlier point about hating people at work, I didn’t hate them but I knew that whenever I had a bad experience, it was related to something that people didn’t do.

I didn’t necessarily hate the task, the job, and the organization but some people were making it hard as hell to be happy in this space. That’s how I started moving more into that realm. The last several years of my life have been spent helping people figure out how to make work a better place. That includes the consulting space but also the teaching space. Most of the people I deal with are Executive-Level Directors who want to understand how to research organizations. I only teach PhD students. We are talking about people who are like you and I come from internal or external consultants who are Directors, VPs, or CEOs in the organizations who are thinking of saying they were thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” That’s how I’ve got to this.

TTLS S2 3 | Work Boundaries

When Leadership Fails: Individual, Group and Organizational Lessons from the Worst Workplace Experiences

Share with me your experience. We think about the cost of toxic leadership. I know academically, we can talk about that all day but that’s not this show. From a practicality standpoint as well as if you have done the research, what is your entry point into toxic leadership?

I remember having so many experiences where the face in your hand and shaking your head going, “I can’t believe this happened. This wasn’t just said.” I experienced those things over again that it wasn’t just me. When I was shared with people that go, “That happened to me, too.” People across organizations, industries, in different roles, and different backgrounds, all were having the same experiences. I was constantly trying to unpack those and do the work within the organizations to make those things shift. I will give you an example that stands out all the time to me. This is an example that’s in the book. I had a Senior Executive over me once and it was performance appraisal time. It’s the end of the year talking about how you are doing.

I remember this was a great year for me and we were in double-digit percentage increase at every metric that I was responsible for. Every metric we were doing was incredible. I’ve got an email the night before my traditional sit-down and talk to your boss performance review meeting. The email says something like, “Here’s your copy of the review. This is non-negotiable.” That’s strange to start it out like that. When I opened it and read it, it was the first time that I had experienced what felt like fiction in that space. This was somebody who legitimately lies about me in a document, conversations that we never had, and things that the boss never said to me that were written in this document. I remember going the next day to ask and she acted like it was the right thing to do. There was no remorse. She had some malicious intent from the beginning that I never understood.

I couldn’t oppose it in my mind that because the performance appraisals go into your HR file. How was that the narrative but look at the success that we are having? These two don’t mix. It unwrapped all the things that I had been aware of about that boss before that I didn’t pay much attention to. All the lying and the mischievous behavior was weird to me. I have had enough experiences like that over time, you go, “I left, not because of that organization but that work wanting not to ever have another experience like that for me but also committed to helping other people not have those experiences.”

I’m sure a lot of people have experienced something similar because I know I have heard it. I know I have had to coach folks through that performance appraisal situation. Honestly, we wonder why people hate performance praises. I always tell people as it relates to performance, building trust, and relationships in the organization, the only surprise I should get is a birthday party. I don’t want my performance to be a surprise. A lot of leaders need to understand the need for consistency and transparency. Related to this situation, how did it end? How did you have that conversation or address it? What did you do next?

At that time, you do what you are taught to do. You can write a response. I wrote this rebuttal. I didn’t, in any way, attack my supervisor. I say, “Thank you so much for your feedback. I’m sorry to learn that you feel this way. I wish we could have communicated differently so that I understood. I’m trying to understand how this is your assessment if here are the things. Here are all the metrics and how we are moving forward. Here’s our performance over last year and all the things that have changed. I’m not sure how this doesn’t meet the standards for whatever it is.” You send that up the chain to that person’s boss and HR. What happens when you are dealing with toxic leadership and it’s embedded in the culture? Nobody ever responds.

The official process is you can write a rebuttal but that’s the only thing that’s official about it and nothing else has to happen. She never came back and said anything. Her boss never came back. HR never stepped in. Nothing ever happened. I said, “Your word against hers.” That was it. That was not the only time I had a bad HR thing. There was another one, and this is part of what I have learned about toxic leadership in these spaces. A lot of times, people are mimicking behavior that they learn through others. They saw someone else do this. Their boss did this. You’ve got a traditional performance rating and micro scales of 1 to 5, 5 is strongly agreed or outstanding and 1 is something. The person came in and said, “I want to start by saying that I know that the scale for this organization is 1 to 5 but I don’t give fives for anything.

I did that whole thing and I remember afterward, I’m smiling and going to the HR office and saying, “Let me tell you what happened. Don’t worry about it. My boss says she doesn’t give out fives, so here’s for you to know. My scale is now from 1 to 4.” It’s okay. Take this, add it to the other ones. Let’s keep going. Not a big deal but you need to address that. My experience over time with these toxic behaviors that are rooted in organizational culture things that go unchecked is figuring out how to navigate them and I spend less time dealing with the toxic person. I don’t need that energy. I’m positive. I started out telling you I’m focused on relationships and people orientation. People who are not in that space don’t need my energy.

When you're dealing with toxic leadership and it's embedded in culture, you have to set things straight and think about your wellbeing. Click To Tweet

It’s going to be too much energy to waste a lot of time because people aren’t going to be helped if they don’t want to be helped. That’s why I tell people a lot of toxic behavior that you see is in the workplace. I’m not necessarily saying that they are toxic people but some people exhibit toxic behaviors and that might be a trauma response that they have. For readers, we must get into a space of having compassion and empathy at the same time, I’m not like, “I don’t give you any of my energy we agreed about. I’m not going to let you harm me or continue to cause me any trauma but I also have compassion for you at the same time.”

One thing that stuck out to me was, not only do you talk about a toxic leader, you have also illustrated how the toxicity was built into your performance appraisal system, how the HR department perpetuated things, and they were complicit in it. Silence is complicity sometimes. That all intertwined together. Do you believe that an organization can be separate from a toxic leader? If I’m an organization, I’m silent. Am I toxic too or am I okay?

They are different because you can have non-toxic people come into a toxic organization and you can have the inverse. My experience in practice and coaching is that as you identify sometimes there are toxic traits from people who aren’t so toxic themselves. They learned bad behaviors. I know you had this in one of the interviews already and sometimes you have people who are toxic followers.

They learn that behaviors by watching other people or what you learn is not to say anything. You are concerned with as, “I don’t want to get involved.” All those things perpetuate bad behavior over and over again. It’s up to everyone but we always say that it starts at the top. What we are seeing more of also comes from the bottom.

You have to have equal buy-in from people at the top who were saying, “Here’s what we want this organization to be about.” People who are at the other level are saying, “Here’s what this organization should be about. I don’t want to be in a space where this is allowed and where you can’t speak up when we see that.” We are seeing some shifts in some organizations around that. I know we are seeing that generationally. We know that some of the younger generations are saying, “I’m not here for that.” You are not going to do that. We are not going to say that.

I was on a call with someone who had been coaching for a long time, who says her successor at her previous job left in less than 60 days. She knew it was toxic the entire time she was there but she’s from our generation where she was trying to make it work and continuing to work with people and to endure all the things that come at her from the clients, coworkers, peers, supervisors. A new person from a different generation came into that same role and said, “I’m not having it at all. It’s nonsense. I’m out.”

One of the lessons learned is no matter what generation you are in, we have to unlearn some of that put up a witness. That’s a form of, we have to learn that we have and should set boundaries. Everyone who we are talking about can set boundaries. It’s some of us choose not to because we view it as, “Let’s impolite, I need X or what have you.” When one’s eyes become open of the fact of that respect you think you need, you do meet it. You are the right person, readers. That respect you think you deserve, you do need it. Figure out what those boundaries are and what you are going to put up with because that makes a healthier situation.

We know what it looks like the other way around. We know who is susceptible to toxic behaviors and toxic organizations. We know how that plays out physically. I remembered being in the space of a good organization and not even a toxic leader but that leader had some toxic traits. Physically, I was always tired. I only lived about 4 miles from that job at the time. I would leave work for a two-hour lunch every day to go home, take off my suit, get in the shower, sit down to eat because I had to wash the organization toxic every day and come back.

TTLS S2 3 | Work Boundaries

Work Boundaries: Setting boundaries is a freeing way to view things instead of having to put up with something.


Sundays probably sucked.

I’ve got to go back on Monday. It’s those things that sometimes you don’t even recognize that this is how it’s manifesting in your body and your psyche when you can’t sleep, your sleep patterns and eating patterns are off. All those things where you are out of sync with yourself. It’s because someone else or the organization is infecting you all the time.

Assuming these pandemics, we’ve got this virus that you do not even recognize what’s happening. There’s no test for it but as you stated, if you set the proper boundaries, I’m in this boundary zone now. I’m clear about what I will stand for, what I take, what I will listen to, and what’s not going to happen. Anyone who works with me, who’s worked with me on projects, in organizations, and any of the people who I have, the great opportunity to train, coach and lead know it. It’s clear.

It’s not a polite thing like, “This is what I need to thrive.” You can take care of yourself that way. One of the things that I like to lean on, I learned from some Buddhist teachings that I was reading, was what do I accept? It’s okay for me not to accept X. I can let go of anything that doesn’t agree with that. That’s a freeing way to view things instead of having to put up with something.

I understand that many are in a role and they need to pay their bills and stuff like that. That still doesn’t neglect you from not setting boundaries or at least defining your boundaries because it does take time to get the comfort and courage to set them but a good test of change for everybody and a good piece of exercise is what would success look like if you set those boundaries. Start writing it down, practice it, and set a small test to change.

That’s an excellent example and practice everyone should adopt. It should be innate when you are in a role where you have responsibility for other people. I learned over time to do this with people who are supervised even when I’m teaching PhD folks now. We start out with, tell me what you need. Tell me what your pet peeves are. Tell me those pains that push your buttons, so I’m sure not to do those.

Here’s a space whenever I violate any of those things or even things I don’t know because sometimes we don’t necessarily articulate everything upfront. Let me know when I’ have crossed the line in a way that I’m not aware of so we open communication immediately and allow for constant feedback. That helps everyone in that space. Now it’s not my just way, and it’s not me, Dr. Morris or Lonnie, the Supervisor, who is setting the ground rules for how we work. Now we are co-creating that.

What you have in lots of organizations is the way that we work because you’ve got multiple people. I supervised probably up to twenty people at a time. Now you have that relationship with each person. It’s not this cookie-cutter that our rules are the same because how we engage with individuals can be different. Your needs are different than my needs but I want my knees respected. The only way that they get respected is if you are aware of those needs and how they are different than other people’s needs. That creates healthy spaces. That’s how you have healthy work relationships and get rid of toxicity.

Continuing to work for people and enduring things that are inhumane is unacceptable. Click To Tweet

It’s doing that individualized equitable needs analysis. We do need analysis of everything else in business but it’s not the people like, “What kind of crap is that?” One of the things you mentioned in the virtual environment and you are working your research in that area. I know virtual interactions come up a lot in the research related to cyberbullying and stuff like that. I know some of the research in virtual environments that I looked at least most is the literature is scant. I’m curious, what insights do you have related to toxicity and how it manifests in virtual environments?

I have been working 100% virtual long before the pandemic. We are in a time when the world has responded this way but probably since about 2012, 2013, I moved into virtual everything. I go to church online, all those things. The shift in the pandemic wasn’t as great for me because my life has been set up that way for a long time.

Most of the stuff that I have been working on, training people on and researching, was not about toxic. I’m going to say why this is important. I have always focused on what’s good behavior there. Understand that good behavior is what helps you eliminate bad behavior. There are a few things that have been significant about this but I also want to speak to some of the toxic stuff, too.

Few things have been significant about this. There is this idea of magnetism that happens in a virtual space that people are drawn to others with interests and values. That is interpreted through your behaviors in virtual spaces. Even in an organization where people might be working now, you might be on the team but you only engaged at about 6 or 7 people.

Your team might be twenty people. I know in all the virtual environments in which I will do work and that’s in professional associations, academic areas and corporate spaces. I know those people who have similar interests to me, and sometimes they don’t tell me but I can get it through how they engage. I know that we share similar values about how things are because I can tell them how you respond, how you provide instruction, and how you give feedback. All those things show me a lot about you. That magnitude is that we are drawn to people with blackness.

There’s this other important thing about being authentic in that space, which was hard. I wrote this piece a while back about schizophrenia and authenticity in virtual spaces because you can have multiple authentic identities. What we are seeing now and you probably are far more aware of this than I that people are looking for synergy across those identities. I know for a long time, the Lonnie that showed up on Twitter was not exactly the same as Lonnie on Facebook and Instagram. I use those platforms for different things.

Here are the ones where I engage with my family. It’s fun and jovial. One is where I engage with my colleagues and professional spaces, so it’s different. One is for sharing photos and travel. All of those are still a part of my authentic virtual thumbprint. You see me in all those spaces. Being aware that you can have multiple identities that are part of 1 person in 1 whole, and that’s all authentic. When we started seeing this global shift to stuff, we were doing some work with one of the professional associations.

We were looking at what are some challenges to this behavior and what should be worried about something that came up immediately is instant. We have always talked about communication that tone and intention can be misinterpreted. I’m guilty of assuming that the way someone responded was not positive and firing off. We know from the practice now that we want everyone to assume good intentions.

TTLS S2 3 | Work Boundaries

Work Boundaries: It does take time to get the comfort and courage to set boundaries.


Even if you are not assuming good intentions, you think the other person has bad intentions and respond with good intentions. It’s always about how do you come back. Your light takes away the darkness. Good help heal badly. Whenever we respond ethically, we need to learn to respond positively. You have never had to respond in a way that helps people to see eye-to-eye. It helps take away some of the toxic stuff that’s floating around us. That’s important to me.

Based on the format and how people show up online, those miscommunications or those misinterpretations, do you think they are heightened if you are not careful?

It happens, you pop up and walking in and I see my aunt might be watching The Talk. It is showing about these two celebrities who are having this feud. I’m going, “How did two rich people get into a typing fight?” It doesn’t make sense to me. Why are you wasting your time doing that? Shouldn’t somebody else be managing your social? You should be out making money, not doing this.

It can easily be misinterpreted and then taken out of context all those things. Imagine what happens in any virtual space with us. We talked earlier about what if the audio goes out? What if the video goes out? If you happen to miss one piece, you only hear the front end and the back end, and you never hear the middle where the context was given. You would have been okay and now you are responding up little piece. It’s a hard piece but that’s traditional communication challenges in a different space now.

Though the modalities changed the communication, we still have some of the similar solutions, I would imagine in that. As we talk about the virtual environment, how are people mitigating the fatigue that manifests there? Some of the research that I have done relates to toxic leadership showed that mental strain could exacerbate some toxic reactions in folks. I’m imagining I’m on Zoom twelve hours a day or whatever and I’m already wired. Tell me more about that. What do you see there?

It comes from the top and the bottom. What we need people to understand is that if you happen to be on a Zoom or whatever platform you are using, when you’ve got to be in this space all the time, the expectation isn’t that you are always on. Part of this newfound freedom that we have with being able to work remotely or virtually in spaces where you don’t have to necessarily go to an office and be with your colleagues is to give you some flexibility on how you set up that work for yourself.

Here’s what we need to get accomplished. You figure out how to do that. I’m going to manage productivity, means by objective, not by time, which means we don’t have to have twelve hours of Zoom meetings. You can use some of the collaborative spaces where people can see updates and you can share information. We know the more time you spend on this, when people aren’t sharing their tiles and you aren’t seeing their faces, people are multitasking behind the scenes because they are trying to get other things done.

You zoom in and you are zoning out because you are not listening to all the speakers or there’s only one person we need to hear from but that person is fifth on the list to speak. All those things that create and that might not be toxic from a setting the stage standpoint but it fuels toxic interactions because now you are high strong about this whole time like, “I’ve got to get another one.”

Setting boundaries is essential in your overall health and wellness. Click To Tweet

We have to be okay with giving people freedom, autonomy, empowerment, and how to get things done. From our end, when you are doing the work, as we said before, you’ve got to be okay with setting boundaries. I was talking to someone who told me he’s about to go on vacation somewhere in the Caribbean and he was going to take his work computer like, “Why?” When your boss goes on vacation, does she take you? What are you talking about? Why do you need a computer if you are going on vacation?

To your point here is that people get accustomed to the toxicity of thinking, “I’ve got to be on all the time. People constantly need me if I’m not available to answer the question.” We talk about how it infects you and you can’t separate from it. You can’t let go, and that’s bad for us as a workforce. That’s bad for us as leaders, as followers, and as human beings that you can’t separate yourself from those tasks.

The way you described some of that, some people don’t set these boundaries because of me being need or me being on all the time. I might be complaining that it’s toxic but it’s also feeding my ego a little bit because I feel important. At the same time of our introspection, we must also examine our level of perfectionism and being needed because, in a lot of situations, you might be contriving that yourself to feel better about something. When Leadership Fails is a great book. You co-edited that book. I was curious, in that book, are there any lessons learned that you wanted to lift up related to some of the stories that may have been in there?

The first lesson is that you are not alone in what you have experienced. That’s what we saw time and time again is people shared their stories and shared, “Here’s what happened to me. Here’s what was said to me. Here’s how this boss acted. Here’s what happened in this situation.” In all these scenarios, people described how people were bad leaders in some type of engagement they had.

You recognize that this was a cross-gender, cross-nationalities, Federal work service, government agencies, militaries, church organizations, nonprofits, schools and universities, all types of things. What we saw is that everyone has the same types of experiences. We are all traumatized by work in some way. The next thing is that trauma is long-lasting. People who wrote into this told stories that happened sometime decades ago.

They would write to me and we will go through the process. I say, “I didn’t realize how much this still impacts nowadays. This happened when I was young. I didn’t realize how much I needed to write about this. I need to unpack this to understand it for myself.” The third thing and this was an important one for our book, is that we ask people to tell those stories but also help us understand the lessons.

Lessons at the individual, group, and organization level are that a lot of times, even though you were victimized by it, you didn’t acknowledge your wrongdoing in that as well. That’s what happens. I see that often, and I know that I have been guilty of that. It feels bad and you feel wronged that you never take a moment to say, “I probably shouldn’t have said that. I probably shouldn’t have blown off that meeting. I probably shouldn’t have gone to that function. I shouldn’t tell her I wasn’t coming back anyway.”

Sometimes because it builds up, it wasn’t one toxic experience. It was multiple times where people had poked at you and it finally blew up in this way but we don’t always take time to acknowledge our own role in that. That might be not speaking up soon enough. Waiting until this has happened 10 or 15 times. It seems natural for the person that’s doing it because you never said anything before, “I didn’t know this bothered you.”

TTLS S2 3 | Work Boundaries

Work Boundaries: The modalities changed the communication. We still have the solutions that are actually pretty similar.


The final thing and one of the big lessons is that there are a lot of organizational responsibilities to be shoulder here. We talked about the difference between toxic organizations and toxic people, the organization is still responsible. That’s what about performance evaluation. It was a person who was being mean to me but someone in the organization should have set the standard for here’s how we do these things.

When someone comes and says, “This is a lot.” There’s a difference between I don’t like how this person evaluated me versus this is a lot. That’s different. Our difference of opinion on my work, how that work was achieved and what the goal was, whether I met that, that’s subjective but a lie is a lie. Across those boundary points, organizations need more accountability for it. We need to take more responsibility for holding ourselves accountable and also that ourselves be freeing battles to figure out how do you spend less time with the toxic folks and more time with the positive.

That book had a lot of great words of wisdom and insights. I hope people pick it up. I want to allow you to share where can we find the book? How can we reach you?

The title was When Leadership Fails: Individual, Group and Organizational Lessons from the Worst Workplace Experiences. It is available on Amazon. You also get it directly from the publisher, which is Emerald and you can reach me Lonnie Morris on that same name on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

I appreciate being able to have this conversation with you. It has been great.

Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

Thank all of you for reading the blog. I’m Dr. Kevin Sansberry, signing off.


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About Lonnie Morris Jr.

Lonnie R. Morris, Jr. is a seasoned scholar-practitioner with 20+ years of leadership and service to higher education in an array of administrative, consulting and teaching capacities. He has coached, trained and taught managers and executives in a myriad of areas including change management, group & team development, leading virtually, ethics, organizational culture and leadership assessment. He has a proven track record in peer-reviewed publishing and presenting. His writing appears in multiple books and journals including Becoming a Better Leader: Applying Key Strategies, the Journal of Leadership Studies and Gender in Management.

He regularly presents research and workshops on ethics and leadership for national and global audiences such as the International Leadership Association, the International Conference on Advances in Business and Law, and the International Center for Global Leadership. He earned awards in 2019 and 2020 for innovations in virtual teaching & learning for business and management. In 2019, he also received the Emerald Literati Award for highly commended research of leadership and management. His latest book is When Leadership Fails: Individual, Group and Organizational Lessons from the Worst Workplace Experiences. He earned the PhD in Organizational Leadership from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the M.S. in Organization Development from Johns Hopkins University, and the B.S. in Marketing from Morgan State University.