Autocratic and overbearing styles of leadership were once considered socially and professionally acceptable in certain types of organizations. After decades of research, aspects of these management styles are now defined as ‘toxic’ leadership’ and are provenly linked to staff underperformance and violation of the best interests of team members and stakeholders in general.
What is toxic leadership?
Researchers exploring the topic generally agree that toxic leadership comes from personality or behaviors that harm not only individuals but also the organization. Toxic leaders are “those individuals who by dint of their destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal qualities generate a serious and enduring poisonous effect on the individuals, families, organizations, communities, and even entire societies they lead”, Dr Jean Lipman-Blumen. Leadership toxicity isn’t necessarily immediately apparent but instead infiltrates by stealth through a mixture of words, seen and unseen actions and subtle behaviors.
Signs of a toxic boss
Creating a culture of fear
Supportive organizational cultures are based on psychological safety where workers feel they can speak their minds, be respected for their competence, have positive intentions towards each other and feel safe to experiment and take risks. The toxic boss rejects this concept and instead creates a culture of fear where individual workers are continuously fearful about the boss’s reaction towards them – like standing on shifting sands. Sometimes your boss will glowingly support your ideas, making you feel like you are the best team leader ever. In the next meeting, your boss’s reaction is the complete opposite, inferring that you are incompetent and your ideas are idiotic.
Divide and conquer
Toxic bosses like to meddle in your team creating chaos and disharmony between team members behind your back. They don’t do this in an obvious way but instead befriend team members and then start to play people off against each other by spreading rumors or negative comments about the other team members that they ‘just happened to overhear’.
Your boss might start to take a closer interest in your team, meeting individual members for coffee or through opportunistic encounters in the corridor. Over time, your team members collaborate less as your boss’s chance remarks pit them against each other. Further, you discover that your boss has implied to your team that you are giving the impression that they are simply not up to the job.
Closing communications channels between people
Shutting down communication results in employees not only being scared of speaking up to managers but avoiding talking openly to each other to discover the truth. Your boss has destroyed trust between your team members and them with you by sowing the seeds of discontentment. Even when you try to get them to open up individually or as a group, the lack of trust means that no one wants to share their true feelings.
Interestingly, no one will say your boss’s name but instead refer to him/her in metaphors. You also notice not only in your team, but across any team, that your boss works with a “cover my back” communication style. In emails, everyone is copied into correspondence and people invite colleagues to meetings where their presence is not necessary – but to act as ‘witnesses’.
Favoritism as a weapon to create dependencies
It would be too obvious if everyone regarded toxic bosses negatively. To cover their tracks, they ‘give favors’ to some team members. These are most likely in the form of promotions to individuals not competent for the role. These dependencies create loyalty to the toxic boss as the individual knows they are in their role due to the boss’s ‘largesse’. Further, the toxic boss creates political and functional coalitions – putting loyal followers into pivotal roles across the organization that can be controlled strategically.
Casting no shadow
Toxic bosses are experts in leaving no trace of their actions or words. They don’t write emails; they prefer communicating when others are not present as witnesses. When you come out of meetings with your boss, you might feel ill at ease but have no written evidence to back up your experiences.
A toxic boss successfully manages upwards. They present as someone highly competent to their boss, simplifying their life, being great at delivery and full of ideas to move the organisation forward. Often these ideas are ones expropriated from subordinates with the toxic boss’s spin added to make it sound like their own. They are the perfect employee to superiors and the worst boss to subordinates.
Insults disguised as advice
Another feature of the toxic boss is their ability to offer advice that could otherwise be construed as an insult. Your boss might say that you pull a face when a colleague is speaking, or that you speak so fast that others have no idea what you are saying. Your boss dresses these comments up as ‘coaching advice’ and infers that you should be grateful that he/she taking an interest in developing your managerial style. As you reflect, these comments often challenge your integrity or personality and are on the verge, but never quite so far, as being insulting rather than developmental.
Recovering from a toxic boss
At this point, you need help to work out how to deal with your boss, given that you maybe can’t simply leave the company in the immediate future. You need to look for strategies to manage ‘you’. It would be impossible to directly address your boss’s behavior given they are so well entrenched both upwards and across the organization.
Ideally, your company would offer structural pathways such as anonymous channels to report toxic behaviors, ensuring HR plays a role in supporting individual employees with training programs and counselling with registered wellbeing/mental health counsellors. Organizations can create mentoring programmes where employees have a trusted mentor who is not in their immediate line management but drawn from elsewhere in the company to act as a sounding board. Unfortunately, you may not have any of these in your company.
You may decide to do various things in parallel. These could include working on your own mental wellbeing and leadership, restoring the atmosphere in your team, focusing on building a stronger network internally in your company and externally through marketing and hospitality organizations in your region.
Wellbeing action plan
For your own mental wellbeing, take up meditation or go into nature on the weekends with your children. Speak to your doctor who may suggest you see a psychologist. You should also meet up with friends at least once a week where you all agree not to talk about work.
Working with your team
Take your team offsite, engaging a leadership coach to facilitate sessions to restore the trust and relational bonds between team members and directly address the previous negativity. Back in the office, make a point of creating more informal interactions with your team members as well as going on a leadership training program to learn how to become a better coach yourself. You also need to encourage your team members to develop their own capabilities. Every team meeting, start with 10 minutes of a fun collaborative activity to lighten up the atmosphere and reinforce relational bonds.
Reflect on your boss’s behaviors and identify what you could learn from them. Your boss is a true expert in managing upwards and building a network across the company. You have not done the same, preferring to let your work speak for itself. You realize this has put you in a vulnerable position where your boss has become the only conduit to showcase your performance. Now you need to build a strong internal network by orchestrating opportunities to meet ‘by chance’ your boss’s boss at the coffee machine to build a relationship with him/her.
You also need to make contact with your former line manager, asking them to introduce you to other important leaders. Be proactive in making informal opportunities, such as meeting for coffee and lunch with other managers in the company. Over time you will develop a strong internal network across the company. This will eventually create opportunities to move role. At the same time, you should research professional bodies in your region and once a month attend an event. Sometimes invite your team members to join too – this is a good opportunity for their development.
Keep your cool in front of your boss. Work with a psychologist to identify mental triggers to remain strong in the face of your boss’s behavior. Continue to deliver but be selective about what you share; guard your best ideas. Keep your team close, by debriefing them after every meeting with your boss; this will keep the lines of communication open. Self-promote your work and ideas beyond your boss, reducing some of the control over you.
Breaking away from the toxic boss
All these actions will take time, effort and planning. There is no overnight remedy other than walking away which you can’t always do. Upon reflection, you may realize that you have let your boss take your control away. Regaining control over your work and managerial style is the main driver to getting back your self-esteem.
As months pass, you should emerge more resilient and confident in yourself. You may be able to move within the company to a role working for a far more supportive boss because of your internal networking efforts. You may also be offered a job at another company. The scars from your toxic boss remain but you are stronger and feel more able to deal with anyone like your boss that you might encounter.
As for your boss, it would be a fitting ending to say they were found out and thrown out. However, that is a movie ending where the villain gets their just desserts, and you win the day. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie. Your boss may continue to work for the company, with or without the coveted C-suite position. Either way, you are free to walk your own path.
Associate Professor at EHL Hospitality Business School