We’ve all had good managers and bad managers, and lots who were somewhere between. The worst managers of all are the ones who create a toxic work environment. You know the ones – I call them toxic bosses. It’s the team where everyone holds their breath when the boss comes in the room and don’t let it out till (s)he’s gone. It’s the team where people burn out from over work and under recognition. It’s usually a team where people are out for themselves and collaboration is less than rampant, because after all, the boss sets the example!
The one thing all my toxic bosses have had in common was their attitude. They were bullies. They were driven, and they drove others relentlessly, without regard for the individual. Because they got things done, they were respected in the organization by leaders despite their disrespect for those below them in the power hierarchy. Working for them was twice as stressful as working for anyone else.
Toxic bosses are usually very, very smart. Yeah, they are smarter than most people and tend to be impatient with all that slowness and stupidity. They take out their frustration and irritation on the people around them. Some very smart people lack emotional intelligence. They are oblivious to the impact that they have to people around them. I had a boss once who needed to be reminded that people need a bathroom break during full day meetings. She wasn’t toxic, she was just so focused on her topic and her passion that she forgot about everything and everyone else.
But, sometimes harassing attitudes and actions are intentional. I remember sitting on a call with an executive while he explained to a co-worker how to pitch to a group of collaborators to get their cooperation. “Explain it and repeat it again and again. Don’t believe they understand, tell them again. Treat them like 3-year-olds with short attention spans.” I was flabbergasted, realizing this was exactly how I felt whenever I spoke with him. Every day at work, I became a recalcitrant 3-year-old who couldn’t get it right. He made most people feel that way and apparently he was doing it intentionally as a tool he believed drove effective communication.
Toxic bosses make you feel bad about yourself. They have no problem dressing someone down in public and do so on a regular basis. I had one boss who systematically yelled and criticized at someone (different each time) on every team call. Team members sat on every team call waiting and knowing eventually it would be their turn. Being chewed out in public is a horrible feeling which can be equated to social exclusion.
People feel socially excluded when they receive cues that they are being devalued by someone, a group or society as a whole. Social exclusion can, on the one hand, encourage the victim to take action to become part of the group again. So, exclusion can motivate people to work harder the next time. Some may use this as a “reason” for devaluing team members. But it can also create feelings of humiliation and shame. In addition, it triggers exactly the same reaction in the brain as physical pain. In the wake of such strong negative emotions, victims can either withdraw, remain alienated, become less productive or even become aggressive.1
What then can you do when you have a toxic boss? It’s a tough situation. You want to get out of there as fast as possible, but that may not be in the cards. Here are some options to consider when working for a toxic boss.
1) Before doing anything else, take some time to analyze the situation. Are you alone in feeling like this boss is out of line? What do your peers think of the situation? Has anyone else complained formally or informally? Is management above your boss aware of his/her attitude? If your boss’ attitude is isolated to a small group of people, try to understand what is driving the sub-group. Do you have similar roles or characteristics that could explain being singled out?
2) Document everything. Take note of specific incidents in detail. If you go so far as to leave the company, you may need it to justify that you left under duress. If you are brave enough, you can file a complaint with HR or your second line management. If you decide to formally discuss the situation with someone in your organization, prepare thoroughly. Part of your preparation should be ensuring that you are laser-focused on facts and not on emotions. If you cried after a discussion with your boss, take note of the exact words used and what happened. Unfortunately, tears are not proof.
3) Treat your peers as allies not enemies. Of course this is true in all work environments – but in a toxic environment, people tend to withdraw and focus on their own survival. Bonding with your co-workers who report to the toxic boss can help to mitigate the environment of distrust. It takes more effort in a toxic environment, but it is worth it for the social support and other positive effects. While you are at it, encourage your peers to also document examples of the boss’ unacceptable behavior.
4) Focus on the words and not the tone and insults when your boss is talking to you. Sometimes, (s)he may actually have a valid complaint. You don’t want to lump everything into a bucket you then ignore. Do everything you can to stay calm. You don’t want this toxic individual to make you toxic in turn. If you are getting yelled at and feel unable to respond calmly, take a deep breath and ask yourself a question. Our brains go into fight or flight mode when they feel threatened – asking yourself a question can get you back into the thinking part of the brain.
5) Batten down your social hatches. If you are working for someone who makes you feel terrible about yourself, you need to find other people who will help remind you of your worthiness. That could be your family, it could be peers in the same team or organization or it could be other friends outside the workplace. Make a conscious effort to remind yourself every day of the positive things you have accomplished. Consciously create an alternative story to the one which is coming from your boss : you suck at everything all the time. Work with others around you to reinforce positive impressions.
6) Take some action to strive to keep a positive mind set in the midst of the negative atmosphere. You’ll probably be thinking lots of negative thoughts and highly impacted by your emotions. Learn how to intercept unproductive negative thoughts and how to identify what a negative emotion is trying to tell you. Focus on what you can do to bounce back when you’ve taken an emotional hit.
7) Plan your exit. Knowing that you are working towards a solution can help you to be more patient in the face of day to day frustrations.
8) Take care of yourself. Acknowledge that you are experiencing emotional distress on a regular basis and that this takes a toll on you both physically and mentally. Be careful to avoid the type A reaction of working harder and longer to try to satisfy someone who will never be satisfied. Sometimes it IS the right thing to do to work harder and longer. But if you are working for a toxic boss, you’re going to burn yourself out and they will still never be satisfied.
There’s no magic wand. It’s hard. But you can survive. You can learn and become stronger. Don’t lose hope – fight back the best way you can, by managing your own attitude and actions.
1Social Exclusion:Psychological Approaches to Understanding and Reducing it’s impact – Jane O’Reilly, Sara Banki, Chapter : “Research in Work and Organizational Psychology: Social Exclusion in the Workplace”