The toxic boss survival guide (Part 1)

Not too long ago, my good friends at C-Suite Coach asked me to participate in a panel discussion about toxic bosses. It was a great conversation and got me thinking about why most managers are bad dealing with people. Of particular note, was the facilitator’s lead-off statement which was bold and somewhat unnerving: During the lifespan of your career, you will most likely have more terrible bosses than good ones. It’s probably the reason you found this article in the first place. So, since most people that read this article probably are dealing with a toxic boss, I want to share some strategies as to how you can survive working for a soul crushing boss. This is a fairly deep topic (as I learned when I was preparing for my panel discussion). With that in mind, I decided to break this article into two parts. The first part will give some context as to why most bosses struggle to lead effectively. Part two will focus on strategies that you can employ if you find yourself working for a toxic boss.


Exactly why are managers so terrible at dealing with people? To answer this question, we need to look at a bit of context. Most organizations, regardless of industry, employ an industrial mindset when it comes to management. This is a direct holdover from when most organizations where factories. However, back in the day, many of those factories had training programs that educated newly promoted managers. The managers chosen for these promotions were overwhelmingly those who were very good at their jobs. The erroneous idea here was that if someone knew their job well, they would be an excellent manager. However, these programs where costly to run and were usually the first to be cut when organizations had budgetary concern, so most organizations did away with them. Ironically, the selection criteria stayed the same. Over time, the combination of poor leadership selection and zero training has led to the rise of ineffective leadership in nearly every industry.


However, there’s good news! This bit information lets you know that the main criteria for being considered for a future management position is being excellent at your job. So, the roadmap is fairly clear: (1) Be good at your job and (2) educate yourself about effective management/leadership strategies. You can do the latter by taking workshops, going back to school or enrolling in a certification program. Being good at your job and learning how to lead effectively are not the only things you should do. You’ll need to find opportunities to use your newfound skills by volunteering for stretch assignments or special projects. This will do a few things for you: it will give you practice leading people, increase your visibility, and show initiative. This combination of knowledge and practical application will give you an advantage over colleagues who focus only on skill building. The bad news is that if you have a toxic manager, you’re more likely to be fired or leave the job long before you get a chance to show your stuff. However, the good news is that you’ll have knowledge and skills that you can take elsewhere. The situation gets even more difficult if your toxic boss’s management style is considered effective in the eyes of senior management. Many organizations have a high tolerance for toxic bosses that get results, even if their methods are questionable. That out of the way, two questions remain: What exactly is a “toxic” boss? What characteristics do “good” bosses have?


Toxic bosses come in all shapes and sizes but have several key traits. The following lists the most common things that difficult or toxic bosses do:


Micro-manage – Toxic bosses will try to watch and control every aspect of your work. These bosses typically punish any deviation in work tasks harshly.  To be fair, micro-managing is necessary. Particularly when a task is extremely dangerous or when the slightest deviation from standard operation procedure will result in a catastrophe. However, it is not at all helpful when employees are doing simple, routine tasks.


Withhold information – Toxic bosses often horde information and/or communicate it poorly. If you and your coworkers are consistently left in the dark about corporate initiatives, changes in policies, etc., you may be working for a toxic boss. Toxic bosses love feeling important and being the only touchstone of important information helps feed their egos. When they do share information, it’s usually doled out in dribs and drabs. A variation on this theme is the boss who only shares important information with a favored employee. This is sometimes used to pit employees against one another (a favorite technique of many toxic bosses).


Give only negative performance feedback – Toxic mangers are notoriously stingy when it comes to giving praise. They will, however, let you know when they don’t like something that you did. The worst of these bosses make it their mission to catch employees doing something wrong and punish them (severely) for their error. This behavior usually backfires when fearful employees start hiding their mistakes in an effort to avoid punishment.


Engage in vindictive behavior – Toxic bosses hold grudges and seek to chastise or humiliate anyone who challenges their authority. It’s pretty easy to tell if your boss engages in this behavior because they will flat out tell you not to challenge them…ever.  Their reputation for being petty usually proceeds them.


Manipulate employees – As I mentioned earlier, some toxic bosses like to pit employees against one another. As such, they usually have a favorite employee. Like their toxic benefactors, these employees are easy to identify as they are: 1) always in the boss’s office (talking about everything under sun – except the job; 2) consistently stroking the boss’s ego by “kissing up” – buying them gifts, paying them compliments, etc.; and 3) the only employee the boss thinks should be working for them. Toxic bosses love to uphold their favorite employee as the model that all others should try to emulate. This is an attempt to get others to imitate the favored employee’s behavior. However, the only thing this usually does is make the boss’s favorite the target of everyone else’s ire.


Exhibit narcissism – Toxic bosses usually only care about themselves. Oh, they will say that their behavior is due to their overwhelming concern for the organization. However, what really drives them is what the organization (and their employees) can do for them. These individuals often project an image of supreme confidence. However, in reality they are insecure and use their bluster as a smokescreen.


They do nothing – While micro-managers usually get most of the attention when people talk about toxic bosses, I feel that the laissez-Faire boss should also be mentioned in this list. Laissez-Faire literally means “let do.” As the name implies, these bosses excel at doing nothing. They are easy to find as they are usually sitting in their office, you guessed it, doing nothing. They are particularly adept at ignoring negative employee behaviors. A favorite technique of the Laissez-faire boss is acting as if problems and complaints don’t exist at all. They also avoid giving corrective action. Why wouldn’t they? It would just mean extra work. This type of lazy leadership usually creates a toxic environment in the areas where these leaders manage. However, laissez-faire bosses are usually too oblivious to notice when employee issues or conflicts arise. It’s because of these factors, I sometimes call these bosses “Toxic Enablers.”


As I mentioned earlier, great bosses are rare (double rainbow rare). However, because they are so uncommon, they are fairly easy to spot. In contrast to their toxic counterparts, great leaders do the following:


Practice self-awareness – Great bosses are connected to themselves. They know their strengths, weaknesses, and core values. Although they may lead with their strengths, they also craft plans to eliminate their weaknesses and blind spots. These bosses have a definite vision of where they want to take their team and communicate it with great clarity. As a result, employees who work for these bosses know exactly how their work is moving the team forward.


Motivate and inspire employees – Great bosses connect their employees’ personal values to their daily tasks. This helps to bind the organization’s overall mission to the employee’s work. As a result, employees don’t feel like they are working just to fulfill the aims of the organization but are also furthering their career and personal goals.


Exhibit ethical behavior – This one is fairly simple. Great bosses don’t engage in anything illegal or morally questionable. They don’t bully, harass, manipulate, or engage in intimidation tactics. In instances where these bosses are employed by unethical organizations (they do exist), they would rather be disciplined or fired before breaking their code of ethics.


Treat their employees like individuals – Great bosses don’t take a “one size fits all” approach with their employees. They take time to learn each employee’s strengths and weaknesses and help them create individualized plans to shore up weaknesses and leverage their strengths.


Show vulnerability – While many leaders play the role of the all-knowing sage, great bosses aren’t afraid to admit it when they don’t know something or when they are wrong. They know that one person’s intellect cannot match the collective IQ of the team. So, they are open to the ideas and expertise that their employees bring to the table.


Produce great leaders – Great bosses take the time to challenge, advise, and coach employees who have aspirations of becoming leaders themselves. They look for opportunities to grow their team members’ skills by selecting them for special projects that allow employees to use their strengths but stretch and challenge them. The also help these employees deal with challenges that these projects present.


As you were reading through the list of attributes of great bosses, you probably thought, “This sounds too good to be true.” As I mentioned earlier truly great bosses are rare. Throughout you career, you’re more likely to have a boss that is a weak leader or one that is a straight up monster. However, don’t despair, help is on the way. In part two, I’ll review strategies for surviving your encounters with your toxic boss.