Leadership: How to Spot a Toxic Boss

Working for some leaders is as painful as taking a full dose of poison. Their behavior is so bad it is toxic to their organizations. You know the type: More of a despot than a leader, he pits employees against each other and paralyzes the organization with fear.

Sometime during your career you may have encountered such a toxic leader, or maybe you see signs now of one emerging in your company (hopefully you aren’t one yourself). Here’s how to spot one, how to protect yourself and your team from his venom, and how to nip an emerging toxic leader in the bud.

The Markings of a Toxic Boss

Toxic leaders share some common traits. They often have a rigid commitment to an idealized goal. They view challenges to their vision as akin to treason. Either you’re with such a leader, unquestioningly, 100 percent, or you’re the enemy.

The poisonous leader is arrogant; in her mind, she is always right, and she takes input only from a limited group of yes-men and -women. Her chosen few get information, but no one else does, and so there is no discussion about the work being done.

Retribution from such a leader is swift for those not aggressively supportive of his decisions. He treats employees coldly, even cruelly. He assigns blame without regard to responsibility, and takes all the credit for himself. I once had such a boss, and he gave me a new definition of shared risk: If something I did was successful, he took the credit. If it wasn’t, I got the blame. Painful as this was, I learned a lot during his short tenure. He was my first negative role model. Fortunately, I was able to move on, and he left the company.

Why leaders behave this way is the subject of much speculation. Some people attribute it to greed, not just for money but for power or recognition. Incompetence can also drive the toxic leader’s behavior, as his fear of being “found out” influences his interactions with others.

The Toll of Venomous Leadership

Poisonous leaders sap the strength of their organizations. Their demand for loyalty causes employees to fear whether they are doing something the leader will deem to be wrong. In this demoralizing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the toxic leader may drive the organization into paralysis.

Employees will stop thinking creatively; their productivity will decline, and they will miss their goals. In extreme cases, employees desperate to please their leader and keep their jobs will slide into unethical behavior or outright corruption.

One might question why such behavior is tolerated. First, it is not uncommon for toxic traits to be hidden behind a mask of charisma. Toxic leaders are actors, playing a role to achieve their self-styled goal. Second, in many companies business success tends to overshadow personal weaknesses.In one organization where I worked, a senior executive consistently bullied his employees, yet he was charming to those above him. Even after his superiors witnessed the behavior, nothing was done about it because he always delivered his profit goals. Only after his staff turned over significantly and he missed his goals did he face any consequences. He wasn’t fired. Instead, he worked with a coach and changed his leadership approach dramatically. This outcome suggests that an organization risks encouraging toxic leadership by rewarding results and ignoring how they were achieved.

A Survival Guide

If you’re faced with a toxic leader (whether or not he’s your boss), you can survive. But you will need a strategy to do so.

First, you have to decide whether to stay or leave. Your personal circumstances may require you to stay. If leaders are rotated frequently in your company, you could wait out the poison leader’s tenure. Or your own skills and reputation may be strong enough so that you’re not damaged by the abuse you get.

Once you decide to stay, you will need to decide whether to confront the behavior or lay low. Trying to counsel the boss is likely to work only if you’re already in the inner circle, and only if he decides to listen to you instead of cutting you off from the group. Joining with others to confront him carries similar risks. Only you can decide how far to go. If you decide to take on the leader, make sure you have all the relevant facts, pick an appropriate time and place for the confrontation, and have a plan for bringing the issues forward.

Meanwhile, you can find support from other executives in the organization by strengthening those relationships. Take steps to establish your independence. Never defend the ruthless behaviors. Outside of work, find uplifting activities to nurture your self-esteem.

Whatever you do, buffer your people from the toxic leader. Defend them against any hits that come from above. I once saw a manager sit quietly and allow a member of his staff to be pummeled by abusive questioning during a presentation. How cowardly was this manager that he couldn’t step in and deflect the criticism? Fear of retribution may tempt you to duck this responsibility, but good leaders do not abandon their people. Let integrity and courage lead you to the honorable thing.

Detoxifying the Next Generation

Toxic leaders aren’t born, they’re shaped by their experiences. If you have one emerging in your organization, you can turn him on a different path. You can recognize an emerging toxic leader by these signs:

Self-centeredness. An employee is willing to harm others in order to come out on top.

Messianic visions. The employee’s vision seems impossible to achieve, or she positions misguided actions as attempts to achieve a noble cause, and she won’t take advice.

Arrogance. He displays disdain for others.

Blame-shifting. I saw one executive order a “take no prisoners” approach to setting and enforcing a technology standard, then disavow the “noncollegial” style of his employee, leaving her to repair her reputation alone.

Redirect these rising leaders by making your expectations for behavior clear to everyone in your organization. Investigate low morale, and attack its causes. Ensure that performance reviews document toxic behavior, and make sure offenders know that mistreating others is going to short-circuit their careers. Promote and recognize those leaders who demonstrate nontoxic behaviors.

Finally, set an example. Most leaders are neither good nor bad always, in all things. Recognize your weaknesses and work on eliminating them. Be someone who is able to take advice. Demonstrate integrity. Work unfailingly for the benefit of your team. Toxic leaders’ victories are often short-lived. Avoiding and defending against toxic behaviors should lead you, and those who follow you, down the path to sustained success.

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