After publishing my blog post titled “The 13 Destructive Behaviors of Toxic Bosses” a couple of weeks ago, I received several inquiries about how one might go about surviving these bosses, which prompted me to publish this post. I hope that the suggestions here will be useful and beneficial to the unfortunately large number of people out there who are working for bosses who have no clue how to be leaders. Most workplaces put a great deal of emphasis on hiring the best talent out there and bringing in extraordinary people, only to make them feel less than ordinary by relegating them to toil under an unqualified, toxic boss. Great organizations ensure that their leadership team is enlightened because they know that great leaders can take even seemingly “ordinary” people and bring out the extraordinary in them.
I have a tremendous amount of passion for this topic because, given the amount of time most people spend at work, toxic workplace cultures—often created or exacerbated by toxic bosses—contribute to a significant amount of stress and negative side effects in the lives of people and the people around them and their communities. I know what it is like to work in an organization like that and I consider it unacceptable that anyone should have to go through that. That is why, in my practice, I work with leaders to guide them in the process of creating extraordinary cultures.
Unfortunately, the truly toxic bosses have no interest in what I have to say because they don’t see the effect they have on the morale and results of their organization, i.e. they are literally ignorant of their own ignorance to do anything about it (something known as the Dunning Kruger Effect). Even worse, in some cases, they are aware but they simply don’t care! Because of this, a practice that I started many years ago is to work with the rest of the organization, while I am also working with the leadership team, to arm them with the right tools, skill set, and mindset for them to be at peace and remain effective at what they do while their bosses are getting their act together.
The bottom line is that we can’t sit back and complain about our toxic bosses and hope they all somehow see the light and change their ways. It is up to each of us to take responsibility for creating a positive experience right where we are, or take responsibility for going somewhere else where we can accomplish that.
Here are a few suggestions for things you can do to not only survive a toxic boss, but to achieve some semblance of success and fulfilment even while you work for one:
1. Establish the boundaries of what you are willing to compromise on and what is not negotiable in terms of your values and what you are willing to tolerate. Go for a “win-win” using the suggestions below, but be prepared to declare a “no deal” and pursue another opportunity if the red line gets crossed. This may not be easy, but nothing worthwhile is. Contrary to popular belief, the worst thing that can happen while working in a toxic workplace is not that you get fired, but that you stay and slowly but surely compromise your values and/or begin to be complicit in perpetuating the toxic culture. You are a magnificent creation and you are too good to compromise yourself into being anything less.
2. Make a decision to be “all in” and make things work as best they can. Stop complaining about your boss to others, develop a strategy to survive and thrive in spite of them, and execute your strategy. It is healthy to vent from time to time, but don’t take on a victim mentality. Declare yourself in charge of how your experience turns out and go to work.
3. Actively look for areas in which the boss is deficient and do your best to make up for their shortcomings. Don’t do this half-heartedly or in a way that makes them look bad. On the contrary, do it in a way that causes them to see and appreciate that they have you to pick up their slack (and that they have slack to begin with). Better yet, make a decision to be a great follower and make your boss look good, within reason.
4. Adapt to your boss’s communication style. You could use a variety of methodologies such as DiSC to understand their preference in style and adjust to the way they want to be communicated with. For example, if they prefer to be short and to the point, stop giving them a long and drawn-out update on all the details. This will spare you a lot of stress and frustration.
5. Ask your boss for specific feedback after certain events or activities. Don’t ask open-ended questions if they are not great at coming up with feedback. Ask them very specific questions about certain aspects of your actions and results and do so with the genuine desire to get better for yourself.
6. If you are receiving conflicting messages on priorities, instead of throwing it back to them and asking them to set clear priorities, come up with your own proposal on the timing and scope of the different priorities and go to them with your idea on how you intend to work it out. Only then should you ask them to help you resolve the few issues that you cannot resolve on your own. Even in those cases, offer alternatives on prioritizing one item over another and the potential consequences, to make it easier for them to make a decision.
7. If the boss uses intimidation and fear tactics, recognize that these tactics only work if you are actually intimidated, and if you are intentional about it, you get to choose if you want to be or not. Figure out what you are afraid might happen and then accept it as a foregone conclusion. I had to do this in one of my assignments. My boss didn’t see value in what I was doing, even though the entire organization was beating my door down to get me to support them, and after a while I decided that what was most important was to serve my clients with excellence and not worry about my bonus. I liberated myself from the fear and anxiety over what would happen if I couldn’t get my boss to see the value in the work I was doing. I ended up getting a much smaller bonus but I gave myself the gift of doing what I felt was right without the worry and fear of some negative consequence. It was well worth it.
8. If you are dealing with an insecure boss who always has to make themselves look good, even at the expense of people in their organization, be the bigger person. Don’t feel like you have to prove to others that you were the one who deserves the credit. Chances are, they already know! Remember, if you are truly out to make a difference, what matters is the difference being made, not the person making it.
9. Don’t get sucked into their drama. Recognize that what they say and do is all about their relationship with themselves, and has literally nothing to do with you. It is all about what’s going on with them. Just as importantly, also recognize that how you feel about what they say and do has nothing to do with them. It is a product of your internal dialogue about what they said and did. I know it is important to us all to please our bosses, but when you boss has proven themselves not to be a mature leader, it is important for you to consciously reduce the weight of their opinions about you so that you don’t end up seeing yourself the way they see you. This will help you “keep the passion and ditch the drama.”
10. Build strong alliances with your peers, especially across organizational boundaries, so that you can collaborate in spite of the silos that toxic bosses end up creating in organizations. Build a few relationships that you can count on in each area and utilize them to initiate productive and mutually beneficial partnerships across boundaries.
As long as you decide to hang in there and make it work, these strategies and approaches should help you develop resilience and be at peace as you proactively work to deliver your results and change the situation. However, every one of the suggested approaches requires practice and perseverance in the face of the emotions involved. Be patient with yourself and identify and accountability partner or coach that you can trust to be caring and yet honest with you and help you get back on track when you fall off the wagon.
I’d love to see your thoughts on other techniques and suggestions you would like to add in the comments section. Let’s share our ideas and target to end the epidemic of toxic workplace cultures
About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!
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