Not one person in their right mind would want to live, breathe, and work in a toxic wasteland. And yet, many people all across America find themselves right in the middle of said poisonous place every day. Their workplace. Home-based employees are not exempt from the tyranny of toxic bosses. The difference is that you have a safe haven to hide in that many engaged in the traditional, in-person workplace does not. Regardless of where you boot up your computer, dealing with a toxic boss is tough. So, knowing that many of us need our job and can’t walk away, how do we survive toxic bosses and overcome them? It isn’t easy, but with intentional focus you can survive.
WHAT A TOXIC BOSS IS.
Most of the toxic bosses simply can’t do their job, let alone do it well. To be blunt, they are incompetent and lack the self-confidence to lead and manage. Lucky you. Toxic bosses rarely trust anyone, take credit for other’s work, keep secrets, find fault with everyone and often throw others under the bus to save their own hide. The toxic boss thrives on power and tends to kiss up [to those above them] and kick down [those beneath them] according to Dr. George E. Reed (author of “Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military). The toxic boss leaves a devastating trail of carnage and destruction in their wake. In fact, toxic leadership has strong parallels and correlations with narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders.
A toxic boss may bully, threaten, use fear, sarcasm and intimidation to achieve his or her own goals. These behaviors are mostly to try and cover up for their lack of competence and confidence. Some toxic bosses are “explosive-types”. They are moody and unpredictable. One often see them screaming, hurling insults, humiliating subordinates- envision that dreadful playground bully. Remember Scut Farkus on the Christmas Story? Yes, he is an explosive toxic boss-type. It’s best to not engage, but also do not show weakness. This type thrives on creating an environment of fear.
In addition to “explosive types”, some toxic bosses are more “gangster type”. Gangster toxic bosses are dangerous. You need a visual? Al Capone comes to mind. He was outright ruthless and took out competition; they are secretive and to be feared. You won’t see them scream; however, they will typically dismiss and destroy once their subjects have outlived their purpose. Don’t make eye contact with the gangster toxic boss- that is like a non-verbal challenge and perceived as a threat. Do try to keep a low profile and do your best to simply survive.
Another type of toxic boss is the “stealth type”. Stealth toxic bosses create a caustic environment through the distribution of gossip. They have a tendency to spread rumors, fan the flames, and then scurry into the shadows like an arsonist who feeds off the thrill and excitement of the fiery destruction. Watch this type. Make sure that you stay true to who you are, “show up” for your job, and calmly (not defiantly) demonstrate the gossip/rumors have no merit. One may consider ways to self-promote without being obnoxious. Opening dialogue with this “stealthy type” may be necessary to clear the air.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EXPOSED?
When exposed to a toxic boss, subordinates may experience behaviors and symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There may be that “fight or flight” reaction exhibited through shock, anger, depression, withdrawal, numbness, and anxiety. According to research conducted by Dr. George E. Reed and Dr. R. Craig Bullis, toxic leadership behavior increases stress, interferes with interpersonal relationship dynamics and reduces job satisfaction for those exposed. Respectively, Dr. Judith Black’s research concluded that Army spouses exposed to toxic leadership, inevitable develop a “hunker down and wait it out” attitude. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness that “things will never change” leads to withdrawal. Some people stop trying to change the situation and resign themselves to “weathering the storm” with the hopes that it will eventually pass.
Of great importance, once the exposure is removed, the sun does come back out and the hope slowly returns. It’s like a burn. If you move your burn towards a source of heat- it still hurts. A LOT!! The experience of a toxic boss leaves varying degrees of burns depending on the length and strength of exposure. Any type of “heat” (trigger) can cause the tender burn to react.
It is important to recognize this experience is an opportunity to reflect and make sure you do what you can to avoid the fire again. Intentionally seek positions in which you are valued and leadership skills are positive. Live with purpose and strive to be the type of leader or boss that builds up, rather than destroy; one who encourages and does not discourage. One who empowers and does not humiliate.
Use self-talk when something triggers you. Remind yourself, “Even though I went through hell, I came out on the other end.” There is no doubt that you may have moments in which you may feel weak, but flip it. This experience was wrong, but it did make you stronger and wiser. Fire strengthens steel.
Re-Frame the experience. That job was yours only for a season and never yours to own. The job was there before you came along, and it was there after you left. Focus on the things that you accomplished and did well during that season, in spite of the toxic boss. Your season had a beginning, middle, and an end. Consider journaling to work through this. What was the hardest part at the beginning, middle, and end that you were subjected to? What negative beliefs did that experience cause you to think about yourself? Now, stop. Flip it. “Even though I was subjected to this… I was able to do…”
Bad things happen to good people and obviously, good things happen to bad people. The stories we tell ourselves are the realities we believe. How you make sense that experience determines if you move forward or stay stuck.
WHAT IF I AM STILL DEEP IN THE TOXIC CESS POOL?
First of all, breathe. It may feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and that toxic boss hates you and only you. The good new? You are not terminally unique. Rarely is one person the victim of a toxic boss. Toxic bosses leave bodies wherever they travel.
Although there is “not a one size fits all” solution for handling toxic bosses, a few suggestions that may help:
1. If your toxic boss is the exploder, never let them see the whites of your eyes or sense fear. Remain calm. They thrive on power.
2. Prioritize; know when to lay low and when to stand your ground.
3. Monitor the toxic boss’s mood. Some may exhibit stronger toxic behaviors towards deadlines, projects etc.
4. Analyze stressors trickling down from senior leadership that influence your toxic boss. Be aware of stressors.
5. ALWAYS use the chain-of-command. Do not jump over senior leaders. You almost immediately become a whiner and not a team player.
6. Do not gossip. That never ends well. Period. The “stealthy type” may resort to these tactics. As tempting as it may be, do not lower your standards.
7. Again, remember that you are not terminally unique. This really isn’t about you. Your boss is toxic. You can’t own that.
8. Flip this to a challenge. When the toxic boss criticizes you, find something (constructive criticism) that you can take hold of to better yourself.
9. Use mindfulness techniques and exercises to help reduce stress. Mindfulness teaches people to live in the moment, as it unfolds. Think about Buddha on the mountain~ life happens, he reflects, and moves forward with purpose.
10. Toxic bosses who resort to rumors are tricky. You can let your character stand for itself (keep notes!) or confront (cautiously) the toxic boss requesting they come to you directly if they have a problem or concern as opposed to colleagues.
11. Try to find one positive thing to focus on when the breath is sucked right out of you. Do not let that toxic boss’s wretched behavior become a cancer in your life.
12. Consciously identify someone that you can vent to OUTSIDE of your work. Preferable a very trusted, tightlipped friend who is wise and solid. Remember #6. Don’t do it.
13. Use this experience as a blueprint for new jobs. Make sure you talk to current and past employees and check out the culture of the company. You better talk, creep, investigate, analyze, research- do your homework!! Now that you know how you got burned, don’t touch it again. Seriously, use this experience as a platform to grow, avoid, adjust, and thrive.
14. Be grateful for great leadership and focus on not being “that person”. Ever.
Try to remember, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” —Stephen Covey