I get a call at midnight. My friend of many years, is on the phone sobbing, looking for advice. Groggy and horrified – I listen to her story. She is a free spirit, marches to the beat of her own drum, is passionate about making a difference and is always immensely engaged and immersed in everything she takes on… The person on the phone does not sound like her. The person on the phone sounds crushed, has self doubt, feels isolated and alone, and is anxious and insecure. Over the last year, bullied and broken down by her boss, she is a shadow of herself. I have never seen her like this.
As I listen to her, I reflect on the toxic leaders my colleagues and I have encountered, faced, and dealt with over the years, the trauma of their teams, their impact on the culture and the damage to the organization.
When we think of toxic bosses, our first instinct is to think of the extreme cases of verbal abuse, harassment, bullying, etc. However, there are also many more subtle ways in which toxic managers impact our lives. Unfortunately, we often tend to ignore the symptoms till it is too late, and we are desperately unhappy and out of options.
Here are 5 key signs to look out for. A toxic boss is one who:
Breaks your trust
Of all the signs, this is the worst. 3 of the most common ways they shatter your trust are, they a) Throw you under the bus – this is the boss who never takes responsibility for their actions, decisions and mistakes and finds ways to blame the team. For them, it is always someone else’s fault. b) Say one thing and do another, c) Destroy psychology safety – they lead by fear, panic and anxiety.
Insecurity manifests itself in many forms. This is the boss who is a) threatened by you, b) takes credit for your ideas and initiatives, c) prevents you from getting visibility and locks you out of senior level conversations, d) and presents your work to senior leaders without you. In extreme cases of insecurity, the boss can isolate you, and find reasons to get you off their team.
Lives in a bubble
This boss is often beyond the reach of reason, they don’t want to hear reality, and don’t want their delusions challenged. You find yourself tiptoeing on eggshells around this boss, and navigating through a minefield of trigger words that can set them off into open confrontation, or worse, passive aggressive behaviors.
Has thinly veiled all consuming ambition
This is the boss who is a master politician, is constantly flitting from meals with one senior leader to another, craves limelight and spends a majority of their time brilliantly managing up. The key challenge is that they suck up everyone else’s sunlight (for e.g. being the face of every pretty presentation). They don’t grow their teams, don’t really action everything on the pretty PowerPoint, yet get recognition from senior leaders. And yes, they can be manipulative.
This is the boss who is asleep at the wheel, can’t be bothered to do anything, therefore has no interest in new ideas, initiatives, your growth, or their own.
What do you do when you have a toxic boss? Should you leave?
I have always believed that you can endure more than you think, that you learn as much from a terrible boss, as you do from a good one. However, the incident with my friend was a wake up call.
While you can certainly turn on the charm and try to win them over, work hard to make them look good, pave the way to realize their ambition or choose to escalate to your boss’s boss, HR, employee hotline, etc., when is enough enough?
We all struggle with figuring out when to let go. Bail too early and it seems you are not resilient, leave too late and you have done irreparable damage to yourself.
When a large part of your energy is spent managing your manager, it is time to find a more inspiring use of your energy.
Life is too short to work with a toxic boss
Life is too short to work with an egomaniac
Life is too short to work for an unethical boss
Life is too short to work for an untrustworthy boss
Life is too short to work with someone who makes you miserable
The only people who should ever become managers are those who derive joy and fulfillment from seeing their team shine, and grow.
I have never met a great leader who wasn’t a good human first.
- Most good companies have robust systems, employee hotlines, decisive leaders, strong HR, as well as employee assistance programs that can help you. Pls do reach out to them if you are in such a situation and need help.
- Most good companies also have clear people oriented KPIs that managers are supposed to deliver on, and there are metrics that help diagnose problems early. For e.g. if we see attrition, or low engagement scores or poor feedback coming from a certain team, it helps galvanize actions to address the same.
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