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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A new manager’s nerve wracking experience

Are you a new people manager? Where do you start? Here is a survival guide for new managers.

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A small confession before I begin my sordid tale… I am a Human Resources professional, have been coaching managers on teaming, leadership, effective management and such else, since I can remember. So when I took on the mantle of a manager for a highly motivated, ambitious, driven and intelligent team of management graduates with experience ranging from 3-6 years, more than a few years back, I didn’t really categorise it as a crisis. And you know… sometimes we in HR believe that because we have read about it, it somehow must mean that we can DO it…

Well… I began where most poor lost first time manager souls begin : i.e. by introspecting about our own managers. Native (or maybe naïve) intelligence tells us that if we can avoid the pitfalls of our previous managers and go with things that we desire in a manager , we should be ok. There is a sense of false security … till of course, you crash and burn!

I’ve always wondered about the abundance of literature on the ‘boss-subordinate’ relationship – some clinical, some diagnostic, some merely an attempt at sense, and some … well… let’s leave it at that. But most aren’t really experiential… about managers sharing their experiences and telling their future generations about the key to unlock this mystery. I may be presumptuous in attempting the impossible … but I do hope that this saves at least one lost soul out there and then, this would have been worthwhile.

In my experience, I have found that it is important to :

Ask yourself and your team how they have grown in their tenure with you

People want to be better than they were yesterday, they want to know more and be more than they were yesterday. If one is able to create learning opportunities, excitement and inspiration… you might just survive.

Being fair

From childhood we learn to resent that extra cookie given to another because it makes us feel less than someone else … and undeservedly so. The corporate environment is no different.

‘Let the person be’

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you was not really spoken for the boss-team relationship, ‘cos then we might have clones on our hands. Here the principle is ‘Do unto others, as he / she would want’ because people are different, their dreams, aspirations and desires are different and it is important to respect that. As Gallup says, ‘different strokes for different folks’.

Appreciate

The ‘black dot on white paper’ analogy never grows old with me. And believe you me, nobody wants to only be a black dot.

Be the values you seek in your team

Values like ethics, commitment to the organisation cannot be taught through speech, it has to be taught through action – our own action. Remember how you disdainfully worked with the boss who was more concerned about furthering his career rather than benefit the organisation? It is easy to lose respect for ‘naked ambition’. I won’t stretch it so far as to say that our team seeks our selflessness… but , like it or not, there is some element of that…

Be the change you seek

Change , especially the difficult ones like culture, just like values cannot get a life only from speech. Their genesis is always in action.

Story telling

Our whole civilization has passed information across generations through story-telling. It is an effective way of relating to people

Trust

The spine is a very important component of the body. Show some and stand up for your team when required, and they will never let you down.

Don’t ask your team member to do something you wouldn’t

They are just too smart for you to fob off your undesirable activities unto them. They may do it but will never forgive you for it.

Be open to being challenged

You just can’t always be right! So, it helps to have people on the team who will question you. I remember when I took over as a manager, my subordinate asked me if I had undergone any first time manager’s training! Well, she had a right to ask and I owed her a good enough explanation.

However, when all is said and done, and hopefully, more is done than said, I have to admit that I am a convert. Being a manager and being responsible for a team may be the toughest job around, but is probably one of the most meaningful and fulfilling as well… because of the opportunity to make a difference.


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