5 signs your boss is toxic and bad for you

If you have a toxic boss, should you leave? A recent conversation with a friend was a wake up call for me.

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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. 

Is insecure

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.

Neglects 

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.

Remember, 

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.

Note:

  • 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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Anecdotal Evidence huh??

What on earth is anecdotal evidence? Why would anyone use it?

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Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store with a crazy pick of self-serving terms coined by genius wordsmiths that give it a legitimacy and power beyond anything it should ever be allowed to command! Wow… anecdotal evidence …. Really? Meaning that I can record one instance of the person in a not so positive light and hold it against him for the rest of his life???? Cool!!! I’ve got to get me one of those!!! Its like a paparazzi masterminded sneak attack on a poor hapless celebrity! It has every exhilarating element possible… from the mystery and the suspense, to the sneakiness and voyeurism, to the manipulation that is such an essential element, to finally fully engaging the creative instinct in the form of the final story telling…

I have recently acquired a renewed empathy for my fellow corporate denizens who crunch through mounds of data, facts and figures just so that the rest of us can make some sense out of the world we operate in… mainly because I see this world under threat from the aforementioned genius devious wordsmiths of our century!

But c’mon! What on earth does anecdotal evidence mean? Anecdote … the thesaurus wisely comments is a story or a yarn… the dictionary equally wisely comments that an anecdote refers to a short account of an interesting or humourous incident… Hmmm. And evidence … the thesaurus, again very wisely comments, is proof or confirmation or indication that clearly shows something… Hmmm…. Now I am confused… How do these 2 terms coming from such totally different backgrounds – one scientific and the other story-telling… come together in such a powerful way so as to serve as a vehicle for immense destruction in the wrong hands.

A friend was once describing a situation where a discussion on people in the organization and their performance turned out to be a swapping – stories session… all that was missing was alcohol and a camp-fire! And all this under the guise of science and providing so-called evidence for decisions being taken… Anecdotal evidence can make the most ridiculous of things sound almost scientific…. And the ‘almost’ is all you need…

Anecdotal evidence is the global panacea of all problems… it can be packaged as the new miracle drug of the century… just take a look at its uses below:

For the fact-averse :

Its really useful for anyone who is allergic to facts and numbers. Anytime you don’t have data to support your theory… just tell a story animatedly… don’t have an actual story?… never mind… just cook one up

For the vengeful :

You don’t like somebody’s face…. Anecdotal evidence to your rescue! Everyone has to screw up sometime…. all you have to do is wait … and use that one embarrassing moment to shame your rival for the rest of his / her life. It can be even more useful when fed to the boss so that the ‘much-deserved’ promotion to your rival can be denied!

For the proposal pusher :

Anecdotal evidence is ideal for the poor proposal pusher being booted out the door coz of lack of facts and figures…. just throw in a couple of interesting stories and ‘the-shutting-down-the-profitable-telecom-company-inorder-to-get-into-toxic-assets’ plan may just breeze right in

For the boss trying to rid himself of a team member :

Anecdotal evidence has special use in this situation. Its amazing how easy it is to find fault when you really want to! etc

But let me tell you that it is not as easy as it sounds. These folks perfect their art over time… for whatever Anecdotal Evidence might or might not be… it certainly is an art… How you use it is almost as important as the context in which you use it…

e.g. A senior manager stands in front of a jury of his seniors and peers explaining away an issue that has caused sleepless nights and says… “Well… I always thought I could count on Andy, but one morning when I travelled all the way to his work site at 8.30am, he wasn’t in. I was taken aback and had to wait for him. And then I realized that this must be the reason for his delayed project status!!!” This, my friends, is what a true master of the art looks like. The more unrehearsed you make it sound, the more ‘objective’ and ‘devoid of ulterior motive’ you make it sound… the more it sounds ‘ALMOST’ scientific. For the discerning ear this will sound like the fraud it is…; for the others… the poor employee will surely be in trouble…

It never ceases to amaze me how decisions sometimes come before logic, how prejudice comes before perception and fact; but how unerringly prejudice is followed by persecution.

Well… after several years of trying to make sense out of the corporate world… the one thing that I have figured out is that … you can fight perception… but not prejudice…

Pls note: This article is written as a satirical view on our workplace dynamics. It is an observational commentary on human behavior.


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