You may have been reading my earlier posts and thinking, “I already know that toxic leaders are terribly destructive because I currently work for one. So what can I do about it?”
Like most tough dilemmas, your choices really depend on the context surrounding the situation. While I’m a strong advocate of honest feedback, I have found this strategy often fails when subordinates try it with toxic leaders. My research [1,2] showed that toxic leaders are narcissistic and only want to see themselves in a positive light. They especially dismiss constructive criticism from subordinates, and often from peers as well. Toxic leaders are unpredictable, and it can be intimidating and difficult to provide feedback to a volatile person. Because they are also authoritarian and abusive, they tend to focus their behaviors on certain individuals, and whistle-blowers are convenient targets for the hostility. Finally, many toxic leaders have succeeded because of their behaviors, not in spite of them. This track record of short-term wins often makes it hard for them to see the error of their ways. So if we assume the direct approach won’t work, what will?
Cover Your Tracks: First things first, make sure you’re protected. Get clarity on your assignments and goals, in writing if you have to (the ubiquity of email helps with this). Demonstrate how you’ve met those goals, also in writing. Keep track of appointments, meetings, and phone calls that include the leader. Take notes - lots and lots of notes. Track who has responsibility for what, document your progress, and make sure those records are accessible to others. Be completely transparent about your recordkeeping, which will have the added benefit of showing how you’re diligent and organized. Not only will this establish a clear record of your role and accomplishments, it may also help you document specific instances, statements, and behaviors that exemplify the leader’s destructive tendencies. You may never need these records for anything, but having them can provide a good buffer when the leader is spinning out of control. Also, it keeps you busy and can be a cathartic way to process the emotions that your boss riles up.
Identify Behavioral Triggers: If you recall the reasons why toxic leaders get promoted, it becomes clear that these supervisors are in very risky situations. They may be lacking management experience or technical expertise, they may have been tasked with fixing a struggling team or leading a high-risk project, or they may be emulating toxic behaviors from their bosses. In all of these circumstances, toxic leaders will be under scrutiny and pressure. These high-risk, high-visibility situations run counter to the narcissism and self-promotion dimensions of toxic leadership. The more you understand potential triggers and defuse them, the more at ease and less volatile toxic leaders will be. Maybe your leader gets especially anxious about client presentations, so you focus more attention on preparing him well in advance. Maybe the leader's micromanaging tendencies mean she just has to do part of the project herself, so let her. Maybe your boss is especially abusive about small grammatical mistakes in documents and emails, so take extra time to review and correct those things. This strategy won't always work. Again, toxic leaders are unpredictable so you'll never identify all the triggers or defuse them all ahead of time. But paying special attention to what makes these leaders insecure can help you put them at ease, and in the process, show yourself to be a key part of the team.
Get the Word Out: If you are in a position to discuss the toxic behaviors outside your reporting chain, do so. Sometimes toxic leadership persists because nobody else in the company knows about it. I coached a toxic leader who would not let any of his employees talk to people outside his chain of command. His employees were not allowed to email, call, or even walk by the offices of people on other teams within the same department. So of course, nobody else had any knowledge of the toxic behaviors that were enveloping the group. Others in the company knew that this team was stressed, but figured it was the pressures of the project and not the controlling leadership dynamic. If you can’t talk to someone directly, use employee surveys or anonymous tip lines to communicate the situation. Getting the word out is an important way to help peer leaders and more senior executives see that an issue exists. They can only find a solution if they know about the problem.
Focus on Your Network: Working under a toxic leader is an excuse to put your energy into networking. By strengthening your informal networks, you may find opportunities to get the word out to new places. Even if you never talk about your toxic boss, networking may help you find a new role – either a transfer to another part of your organization or a job with a different company. Most people find new positions through distant acquaintances. Think about it – if your family and close friends know you’re miserable and also know about a new opportunity for you, they would have shared it already. It’s the people you don’t see often and don’t know well that can connect you with your next step. Most importantly, networking allows you to mingle with people who are not mired in the same toxic environment as you. I have found that toxic leaders tend to create a “relationship black hole.” This black hole pulls you and your teammates into a vortex where you all talk about your toxic boss. Usually, the long work hours and isolation make it hard to network outside the team. Also, the team dynamics are so screwed up that nobody else gets it, so it’s easier to commiserate with teammates because you’re all together in the same bad situation. Unfortunately, this can lead to negative groupthink. You need to get beyond your team to regain perspective. Networking helps you connect with professionals who are not in toxic situations. Even an occasional connection outside your team can remind you that some people love their jobs and their leaders. Sometimes a little perspective is enough to make you ready to face the day.
Leave: There’s a popular saying in HR: “People don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses.” Making a job transition, even one within the same company, takes a lot of personal energy and social capital. But in some situations, it may be worth that short-term expenditure to get into a better overall situation. If your toxic leader is impacting your work, your personal life, and/or your health, then you might be better off elsewhere.
I have used a combination of all these strategies in my coaching, advising, and yes, reporting to toxic leaders. Documenting your story can provide a sense of security. Defusing potential triggers can decrease the frequency and severity of toxic behaviors. Telling others about the leader can be cathartic. Boosting your networks can be rewarding and provide new perspective. Taking on a new role is exciting, and even staying put while thinking about different career options can be liberating. By combining these coping strategies, you’re building your resilience and - this is important - you’re not focusing all your mental and emotional energy on the toxic leader.
Your world is bigger than your boss.