It seems like common sense. If you have a boss who engages in toxic behavior, then they aren’t a good boss and shouldn’t have that job. Right? And yet, there are many toxic leaders out there who are allowed to stay in their positions of power long after they should be. Why is that, and what can be done about it?
In “The Rise of Toxic Leaders And What We Can Do About It,” Ray Williams points out that, “Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.” The truth is that there may be many reasons why a toxic leader is valued by society, but that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore their toxicity, which can take a variety of forms that you should be on the lookout for.
In “The Effect of Toxic Leadership” retired Lt. Col. Darrell Aubrey says that toxic leaders abuse power and above all, promote themselves at the expense of those underneath them. In “Handling Toxic Leadership,” William LaFalce adds that “toxic leaders may be narcissistic, poor listeners, lack empathy, often take credit from others’ work, be hypersensitive to criticism, have an over-inflated sense of self-importance and often fly into rages, berating and humiliating subordinates.” Williams adds that in a toxic work environment, “Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems and rarely gives positive feedback for what is going right….The leadership either directly bullies employees or tolerates it when [bullying] occurs among employees….” And, lastly, “people are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness and/or well-being.”
Concretely, these behaviors can manifest in a number of ways, including some specific examples that Jean Lipman-Blumen, author of “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” illuminates: a toxic leader undermines the dignity, self-worth and efficacy of others. Blames others for their mistakes or failures and frequently criticizes others. Constantly seeks and needs praise. Is super-sensitive to criticism and will seek vengeance against those who give it. Often exhibits mood swings and temper tantrums. Makes many promises that never happen. Takes credit for others’ work.
So, once you’ve established that there’s a toxic leader in your life, what can you do about it?
LaFalce offers the first tip, which is that, “Toxic leadership does not flourish in climates where a system of checks and balances provides subordinates the opportunity to give feedback to senior leaders.” If there is a way for you to give feedback on your boss to senior leaders, then do so, focusing on concrete details about what the person said and how they behaved.
Lipman-Blumen has three very helpful tips: first, that you get support from others and seek safety in numbers. As she points out, if several of you complain about toxic leadership, than it’s harder to ignore, and also harder to single out one person for retribution. When you speak up about toxic leadership on your own, you make yourself vulnerable. Plus, chances are high that other people have noticed the problems as well.
Next, she suggests that you hold the leader accountable to their mistakes. Writer Melissa Korn explains this idea more fully: “Make your boss adhere to accountability standards by keeping track of who was consulted on a decision, to what purpose a decision was made, and whether the boss admits to mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, and a boss who claims to be isn’t honest.”
Lastly, Lipman-Blumen says that you need to be in control of yourself. Toxicity breeds toxicity, or as Tracy Crossley writes in the Huffington Post, “Misery loves company. Many toxic people get off on finding problems without concerning themselves to provide a solution. Toxic people feel better when others join them in feeling powerless and stuck in a negative state.” One good way to avoid the trap of becoming too negative is to stay focused on what is best for you in the long-run — rather than short-term, band-aid solutions. If you need to get out of the situation, that’s something you should seriously consider, even if it will be harder in the short-term. Stay focused on what you need to live a healthy life, so that you don’t get sucked into others’ toxicity.