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Surviving the Toxic Boss

Working for someone who pushes and challenges you to achieve more can do wonders for your self-esteem, and career progression.

Working for a toxic boss however not only drains energy and confidence, it can be detrimental to your mental health.

The Office Psychopath

I’m sure most people reading this (or listening to or watching the links below) have had experience working with a toxic boss, or a toxic colleague. So, let’s first start by classifying what is meant by the definition ‘toxic’.

A great book on this topic is Taming Toxic People by David Gillespie, who uses the term ‘office psychopath’. The word psychopath comes from the Greek word ‘psyche’ meaning mind, and ‘pathos’ meaning suffering or disease. While the term ‘office psychopath’ is not classified in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders), the official psychiatric diagnosis equivalent to psychopathy is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) which is “a condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behaviour”.

Jekyll and Hyde

“When you first meet them they are incredibly charming. They tell you everything you want to hear and seem like the most genial and wonderful people you’ve met in your life” says Gillespie.

“Very shortly after they are different. People often describe it as a Jekyll and Hyde nature where they’re fine when they are ingratiating themselves with you, and suddenly they’re plain nasty or dismissive towards you.”

Toxic people use fear and intimidation in an attempt to control others. They are untrusting and question everybody else in their team, resulting in team members ‘jumping at shadows’. Toxic leaders often pick on team members and can be classified as corporate bullies. They try to embarrass or threaten employees and generally exhibit narcissistic traits and abuse their position of power.

The quintessential component according to Gillespie is “a complete lack of remorse or guilt, emotionally shallow, callous or lack of empathy and failure to accept responsibility for their own actions”.

“At their core, toxic bosses lack the ability to ‘feel’ our emotions”.

7 Signs of a Toxic Boss

  1. Passive-aggressive behaviour – they undermine you in a passive-aggressive way and have an ability to cover their tracks and change the conversation if pulled up on their behaviour
  2. Poor communication skills – linked with a lack of empathy, communication is poor and often last minute, and is always about them, not the team
  3. Control freak/Micromanage – often due to their own insecurities, toxic bosses micromanage, yet in other areas (like leadership and career development) they can be totally absent
  4. Instill a lack of trust in teams – previously happy and harmonious workplaces can fall apart with continuous in-fighting and an environment where people stop trusting each other (have you read Lord of the Flies?)
  5. Pick their little favourites – while behaving like a tyrant to some team members, toxic bosses often pick their little pets and treat them totally differently. This further disengages team members who aren’t being supported or looked after
  6. Moods strike at random – they flip from being charming and engaging, to acting like an enraged bull, yelling and hissing with venom
  7. Total lack of empathy – this is the number 1 trait that differentiates an incompetent manager who is highly narcissistic to a ‘corporate psychopath’. Another sign is they devote themselves entirely to the task at hand (like sitting in meetings reading emails on a mobile phone and totally missing emotional cues in the room)

Jekyll and Hyde

“When you first meet them they are incredibly charming. They tell you everything you want to hear and seem like the most genial and wonderful people you’ve met in your life” says Gillespie.

“Very shortly after they are different. People often describe it as a Jekyll and Hyde nature where they’re fine when they are ingratiating themselves with you, and suddenly they’re plain nasty or dismissive towards you.”

Toxic people use fear and intimidation in an attempt to control others. They are untrusting and question everybody else in their team, resulting in team members ‘jumping at shadows’. Toxic leaders often pick on team members and can be classified as corporate bullies. They try to embarrass or threaten employees and generally exhibit narcissistic traits and abuse their position of power.

The quintessential component according to Gillespie is “a complete lack of remorse or guilt, emotionally shallow, callous or lack of empathy and failure to accept responsibility for their own actions”.

“At their core, toxic bosses lack the ability to ‘feel’ our emotions”.

7 Signs of a Toxic Boss

  1. Passive-aggressive behaviour – they undermine you in a passive-aggressive way and have an ability to cover their tracks and change the conversation if pulled up on their behaviour
  2. Poor communication skills – linked with a lack of empathy, communication is poor and often last minute, and is always about them, not the team
  3. Control freak/Micromanage – often due to their own insecurities, toxic bosses micromanage, yet in other areas (like leadership and career development) they can be totally absent
  4. Instill a lack of trust in teams – previously happy and harmonious workplaces can fall apart with continuous in-fighting and an environment where people stop trusting each other (have you read Lord of the Flies?)
  5. Pick their little favourites – while behaving like a tyrant to some team members, toxic bosses often pick their little pets and treat them totally differently. This further disengages team members who aren’t being supported or looked after
  6. Moods strike at random – they flip from being charming and engaging, to acting like an enraged bull, yelling and hissing with venom
  7. Total lack of empathy – this is the number 1 trait that differentiates an incompetent manager who is highly narcissistic to a ‘corporate psychopath’. Another sign is they devote themselves entirely to the task at hand (like sitting in meetings reading emails on a mobile phone and totally missing emotional cues in the room)

Warning: Make Sure it Doesn’t Become a Self-fulfilling Prophecy

For anyone who has worked for a toxic boss, you know first-hand just how they can impact all facets of your life. One of the first things that goes is your confidence, or self-esteem. Due to the nature of constantly being attacked or criticized, when you work for a toxic bass you start to second-guess your skill set and the worth you bring to the company. Even worse, if you don’t get support to break the (toxic) cycle, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Example: You have a boss who constantly condemns you and says you can’t sell, you spend a disproportionate amount of time stressing about what your boss said and how poorly they spoke to you, then you spend a lot less time building or nurturing relationships with clients, and …

Financial and Emotional Damage Caused by a Toxic Boss

A recent study by the University of Manchester’s Business School examined 1,200 participants from several countries working in a range of industries. The first point they noticed is working for a toxic boss dramatically reduces levels of job satisfaction.

But even more alarming, is the lack of job satisfaction went a step further and encroached on employees personal lives too, with a number of the sample suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. Researchers discovered that employees working for a highly narcissistic or psychopathic boss were more likely to experience clinical depression.

Toxic Behavior Spreads Like Wildfire

The impact of a toxic leader’s behaviour can spread throughout an entire organisation, like a roaring bushfire jumping from tree to tree, leaving a path of destruction behind it. Researchers found that toxic leader’s behavior can destroy an entire culture with employees being highly critical of each other and modeling the so-called leader’s aggressive behaviour.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found similar results when examining workplace incivility. They discovered toxic behaviour (including constant belittling, put-downs and negativity) led mental fatigue. It is estimated workplace incivility costs companies $14,000 per employee due to lost productivity.

Most Likely Industries?

An Australian study found close to 1 in 5 CEO’s displays signs of being a corporate psychopath.

“Corporate psychopaths (or toxic bosses) are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds – wherever you get power, prestige and money you will find them”. Dr Robert Hare, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Corporate psychopaths believe they are superior to other people and are drawn to occupations that give them power and control over others. Psychologist Kevin Dutton from Oxford University has compiled ‘The Great British Psychopath Survey’ and has been steadily collecting data that tells us the professions most likely to attract psychopaths (in descending order) include:

  • CEO
  • Lawyer
  • Media (TV/radio)
  • Salesperson
  • Surgeon
  • Journalist
  • Police officer
  • Clergy person
  • Chef
  • Civil servant

Surviving the Toxic Boss

  1. Be alert to their presence – just knowing what you are dealing with, and knowing you are not crazy (or alone) can help you get through the following steps
  2. Avoid criticizing them – any feedback, no matter how mild or constructive, will be taken as a form of attack
  3. Don’t take their behaviour personally – as hard as this sounds, this is one of the absolute keys to coping. You CAN NOT take their behaviour personally and you have to develop a thick skin (at least for the short-term)
  4. Maintain your sanity – it is difficult to keep performing at a high level when your boss is riding your back, every-single-day. But, you need to take a big breath, dig in, and be strong. Stick to what you are good at and remember you have experience. Try and avoid getting into detailed conversations and free yourself to focus on doing good work
  5. Get professional support – I suggest working with a career coach or a psychologist who has first-hand experience and training supporting people in how to manage toxic relationships. Sure, talk to your partner, family or friends, but my advice is to seek professional advice.
  6. Build relationships with a mentor – ideally a senior person where you work to help you navigate the toxic boss/manager and look for other opportunities inside the business
  7. If #1 to #6 fail, get out – not all terrible bosses can be managed through logical self-protection strategies and coping mechanisms. In some cases, a supervisor is so toxic that the best choice is to seek a new opportunity rather than continue to be harassed and ridiculed

Reference Sources:

Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work and at home. David Gillespie, 2017.

Study Reveals How Damaging a Toxic Boss Really Can Be. Forbes Magazine. Amy Morin. Jan 2017.

Personal Experience

Have you had experience with a toxic boss?

And, how did you survive?

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