If you have been following my work for any significant amount of time, you know that I am not one to dwell on the negative behavior of others. My focus is on introspection and building resilience and developing transformative insight in the face of adversity. I believe in taking responsibility for not only my own actions, but also for my responses to other people’s actions. As a leader, no matter where you are on the organizational chart, you always benefit from declaring yourself “The One” and being pro-active rather than reacting to other circumstances or people. This is especially true for those of us who have to deal with toxic bosses.
Having said that, since I confessed some of my own sins as a leader in last week’s post, I’d like to shift my focus over to the “sins” I have seen toxic bosses exhibit over the years. I believe this is important because there are times when we simply need to recognize that the boss is just plain wrong in the way he/she is behaving, and we need to stop tolerating their destructive behavior under the guise of deference to their perceived authority. A conversation I had with someone who recently changed companies reinforced to me that sometimes when we are working with a toxic boss, we start making small compromises and gradually lower our standards of what we expect of our leaders, ourselves, and how we ought to be treated. After doing this for so long, it is just accepted as the default state, and it isn’t until the weight of the bad boss is lifted that we realize just how much more refreshing life and work are without having to deal with the burden of one.
Before I go further, let me emphasize again that I am a big fan of “followership” and I believe we should all gladly look for opportunities to make up for our bosses’ weaknesses with our strengths, as long as they are sincere and well-meaning. I believe, however, that we should never get to the point where we become enablers in aiding and abetting the proliferation of behavior that destroys the morale of the organization, negatively impacts its results, and causes far reaching damage in the lives of the people who have to deal with the toxicity every day. I know this may seem a bit radical, but having worked with totally awesome bosses and some not so awesome ones, I am clearer than I have ever been about the damage these people cause and I am determined to do everything in my power to minimize and neutralize their negative impact.
If you are being loyal to a boss who lacks competence (and doesn’t want to develop it) or a trustworthy character or both, it is important to know that no matter how much they make you think their mindset and behavior is normal, there are some behaviors that are simply not to be tolerated from anyone, especially a so-called leader; the standards are meant to be higher for those in authority, not lower. I have the good fortune of working with some clients who are in the process of creating amazing cultures and I am always in awe of their leaders. If you ever have the opportunity to work for one of these types of leaders, one who truly values you as a person as well as your contributions, your newfound sense of self-worth would never allow you to settle again for being used and abused by an immature or insecure boss who lacks emotional intelligence and is all about being a self-aggrandizing dictator.
Below are some of the toxic behaviors I have seen in bosses that ought to raise a red flag that that boss ought to be avoided, minimized, and perhaps even ignored, for the good of the organization’s results and its people. I would love to hear your comments about what behaviors you would add to this list, based on your real-life experiences:
· They are terrible communicators. Their communication is sporadic at best and seems intentionally opaque or passive-aggressive in its absence at worst. Communication is inconsistent, leaves people confused, and brings progress grinding to a halt as people try to figure out what’s going on.
· They keep people in the dark as to what they think of their performance. People are constantly trying to guess whether they are on the boss’s good side or not. Even when they do let someone know they are happy with their performance, it comes in the form of sarcasm in public settings or equivocal and condition praise that could be retracted at any time, as opposed to extending the person the courtesy of providing a person constructive feedback.
· They pay no mind to the conflicting direction they give people and when they are asked to clarify the priorities or the direction, they get defensive and blame other people for not being clear. They are inconsistent in their leadership, and indignant about it rightly being pointed out.
· They take credit for anything that seems to be going well, either overtly or through false humility. This applies to even things that it is physically impossible for them to have influenced, except through some combination of quantum mechanics and time travel.
· They don’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. They routinely throw anyone and everyone under the bus, including their own people, and engage in lengthy blamestorming sessions to distract from their own incompetence.
· They use intimidation and fear tactics, and sometimes outright threats, to coerce people into complying with their whims, rather than exhibiting true leadership in which people freely and enthusiastically choose to follow a leader’s example.
· They are rough and tough on the surface, but lack the courage to admit their own flaws or have the difficult conversations that are required to address issues with the right people.
· They micro-manage and parachute in to bask in the glory of saving the day at the expense of building their people up and establishing respect and trust in the organization. This sometimes extends to undercutting the decisions that their own people make, even when their decisions are correct and appropriate.
· They have wild mood swings that leave their people having to guess how they are going to react to the routine ups and downs of the job. As a result, a significant amount of time is spent managing their emotions and massaging their egos to the detriment of actual work. This also causes people to be cautious and hesitant to share bad news, leaving the boss ignorant of what is going on around them, and thus unable to lead competently.
· Even if they say they have an open-door policy and that they welcome feedback, they don’t genuinely seek feedback in a way that invites and encourages honestly. Their behavior demonstrates that they only want to hear positive feedback, because any negative feedback is met with either wildly disproportionate vilification or ostracization.
· They lack competence and yet, because of their ego, they refuse to give up control of parts of the job that someone else could handle more effectively through stewardship delegation.
· They expect people to be loyal to them, but they pit people against each other and diminish the loyalty that peers have toward each other. They also exhibit loyalty to no one except themselves when the going gets tough.
· They preach certain values publicly but only practice them when it is convenient or beneficial. Worse yet, they reward people for violating these values if it furthers the boss’s agenda.
The list of behaviors that need to be called out and dealt with, rather than tolerated, is much longer than this but I will stop here and invite you to comment and share your own list with the rest of us. Let’s raise awareness on the fact that it is time for these behaviors to stop. Let us re-commit ourselves to being self-aware and resilient as the main strategy to mitigate the damage caused by these bosses and their behaviors, but let us also be vigilant in making sure that others, especially those who are younger in their careers or those who are blindly following toxic bosses, know that this kind of behavior is not normal and will never be acceptable from anyone.
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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