Finding Margin in Business and in Life

A Martyr in the Midst: How to Deal with One in Organizational Leadership


No one would argue that leading an organization is a boring or simple exercise.   It is challenging from the very beginning, and perhaps most difficult, when it comes to hiring and managing employees.   Balancing the operational requirements of the organization with the varied personalities, talents and needs of employees is a delicate process that requires a diligent, thoughtful approach to meaningful and effective communication and accountability.

In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni argues one thing all successful organizations have in common is strong organizational health.  It’s the one thing that drives all other measures of success for an organization.   He goes on to lay out 4 succinct steps essential to creating positive organizational health, the first and foundational step of which is to “Build a Cohesive Leadership Team”.    In order to build that cohesion, though, you need to have the right people on the team, right?.   But what happens when you find yourself with a martyr on your leadership team?  What do you do then?


Let’s start with understanding what I mean by a “martyr”.  The martyr complex is a well-known psychological issue closely related to the victim mentality.  Essentially, the martyr complex can be described as an individual who adopts a position of suffering or persecution because it feeds a desire for acceptance from others or to avoid personal responsibility for results.  This suffering provides a sense of personal fulfillment internally, although the overall desire is to be recognized and approved by those around him.


So how do you know when you have a martyr on your hands?


Below are 4 behaviors that will help you identify the martyr in your midst:


  • He is completely overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control, but neither seeks nor receives substantive help to meet the challenges he faces.  You simply cannot help a martyr.  He neither wants to be helped nor will he accept it.  To do so would violate his continuation as a victim – and he can’t have that!
  • He over-dramatizes the work challenges he faces and complains to any and all who will listen, especially subordinates and those who have no ability to impact the situation, of how unfair and difficult his situation is.  Martyrs are not quiet about their suffering.  It’s important everyone know just how difficult their life is and who is to blame for it.  He neither cares nor thinks about violations of confidentiality or professional conduct.  He only cares to make known the extent of his difficulties caused by others.
  • When pressed for possible solutions to issues on the leadership team, he is either unwilling or unable to provide and implement simple and obvious options that are available to him.   He typically offers nothing of value for consideration.  At times, however, he will pursue outrageous and irrational solutions to simple problems, knowing they have no basis for success.  He does this in order to perpetuate the myth of being held back by a lackluster leadership team uninterested in providing the “necessary” tools to resolve the issue at hand.
  • He chooses to make himself the center of an emotional chaotic storm.  The martyr constantly stirs up trouble creating mountains out of mole hills or simply creating issues where there are none.  He excels at fostering dissent where none is warranted, encouraging meaningless conflict and distrust in place of unity.  But if you look closely, these fires don’t directly place him as the injured party.  In fact, they are almost always carefully choreographed to involve others, so the martyr can stand out as the only objective party able to resolve the matter – but unable to do so, because his hands are tied.

So how do you deal with the martyr in your organization?

If your martyr is relatively new to your organization.  Here are the steps you can take to help bring him under control.

    • Investigate and document concerns you may have regarding the martyr’s actions.  If the martyr is part of your leadership team, you undoubtedly have seen some or all of the behavioral examples above.   Learn how other stakeholders in your organization have been and are still impacted by the individual.  Look at the operational and financial results of those areas for which the martyr is responsible.  Your findings will largely fall in line with the length of his employment and his level of leadership in the organization.  The longer he has been with the organization and higher up the managerial chain, the more damage you will uncover.
    • Confront the leader directly about the issues you’ve uncovered.  Legally, this can get dicey, so keep in mind this isn’t legal advice and consult your attorney directly before you move forward.  If your findings are egregious, you should confront the martyr with your findings and terminate his employment immediately.  If the damage so far is recoverable and you determine there may yet be hope for the martyr, you should still absolutely confront him with your findings and remind him of the organizational expectations for leadership conduct and values that have been violated.   If during this conversation the martyr is unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions (and it is unlikely he will), then fire him immediately.  You can’t work with someone who won’t accept responsibility for his behavior.
    • Communicate requirements for continuation of employment.  If he accepts responsibility for his actions, then you’re now in position to provide him a lifeline of sorts for continuing his employment.  Make sure you spend time ahead of this meeting to determine what exactly is required for his continued employment.  I would recommend the following as non-negotiable, although not all-inclusive.
      • Professional psychological help – The martyr complex is deep psychological issue that won’t be resolved easily and not through work-related stipulations alone.  Unless this person chooses to confront these root issues, it is highly unlikely you’ll move the martyr out of his corner.   If he is unwilling to change, then you have a fiduciary responsibility to your organization and to him to let him go.   Release him with grace and dignity, quietly and professionally.
      • Zero tolerance for complaining – Under no circumstances will you allow the martyr to break the code of professional conduct by complaining to others outside of his direct superior.  All concerns, complaints or comments must be delivered to the supervisor or leadership team — nowhere else.  Again, if you find he has violated the tenants of the agreement, he must be terminated immediately.
      • Insist on consistent messaging from the top down – He is to carry out the express duties of his employment obligations cheerfully and respectfully.  He must fulfill his leadership responsibilities by living out agreed-upon action points of the leadership team and communicating the same message to his subordinates.  Again, if he cannot fulfill this obligation, he must be terminated immediately.
      • Enforce accountability with frequent supervisory reviews – Since inaction is a common side-effect of the martyr complex, he must agree to close operational supervisory review on a regular basis, typically weekly.  In those meetings, the martyr is required to set the agenda and follow up on the agreed-upon action items from those meetings.  He must agree to be held accountable for resolving issues under his command and completing the necessary actions for resolution.  There is no more blaming others for what doesn’t get done.   This may be more than the martyr can bear, and if so, you again have grounds to terminate his employment.
Now, if your martyr has been operating for longer than a year in your organization unchecked, you will find the first two steps above will likely be all that is warranted.  The damage he has done to your organization will be profoundly pervasive.  Morale under his leadership will be decimated.  Turnover will be prevalent.  Work output will be dismal in both quantity and quality.  Customer issues will abound, negatively impacting profitability and goodwill.  You have only one choice here.  Remove the martyr from your organization.  Immediately.


Depending upon this person’s leadership position, terminating his employment will most certainly disrupt your organization both operationally and emotionally; particularly those areas under his control.  Prepare yourself in advance on who, when, how and what to communicate about this change to your organization’s stakeholders and how to fulfill this hole in the interim.


It’s unlikely you can tell them anything about why the individual was terminated, however, you can speak volumes about the values you hold dear, expectations of staff and about how the organization will move forward together.   The confidence with which you deal with the martyr and the aftermath will breathe much-needed life back into your organization and give them the courage to shoulder the short-term inconveniences of a much-needed leadership transition.


Finally speak well of your former colleague, “the martyr”, to his subordinates.  Working for a martyr is a confusing place to be and there will be deep-seated concerns about your motives and his removal.  Be kind, considerate and don’t shy away from conversations with these folks.  I compare this time to the confusion when waking from a bad dream.  Once the fog and angst wisp away, you’re left with a lot of questions that don’t add up.  Don’t be surprised if you lose some good people in the coming days.  It’s the cost of waiting to deal with a martyr; the damage will be deeper than you think.


Ridding yourself of a martyr is an emotionally raw experience, but a necessary one.  The best way to rid yourself of one is to not hire one in the first place.  Take your time in the hiring process.  Check out all references and former associates as practically possible.  In today’s sue-happy environment, listen for what’s not being said.  Its revealing.  If you’re thorough in your due diligence, a clear pattern will reveal itself allowing you to pass on the martyr candidate and the emotional carnage he brings with him.


If you’ve had professional experience with a martyr, how did you handle it?
Below are a couple of links to articles that provide more insight into recognizing and dealing with those with a martyr complex.  If you find others, let us know of others in your comments.


Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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