Coping with toxic leadership

“My boss hangs over my shoulder all day, watching everything I do.”

“My boss is never around when I have questions or concerns.”

“My boss is volatile, unpredictable and completely unchecked by any internal systems or rules.”

Lately I’ve been hearing a laundry list of workplace horror stories from family, friends and clients that all have one thing in common: poor (or no) leadership.

Leadership problems trickle down to employees in a variety of ways. A void in management can bring out all of the weaknesses in a team that might otherwise work seamlessly together. Some members might see the void and leap to fill it themselves, stepping selfishly over the bodies of their co-workers in the process. Some engage in hurtful gossip and fear-mongering, struggling to understand or predict what could be coming in a misguided attempt to protect themselves, again throwing colleagues under the bus in the process. Others may feel so demoralized they disappear into themselves, struggling in silence to maintain some sense of direction and meaning despite a complete lack of direction from above.

If your problem is a micromanager — or worse, an unpredictable and volatile psychopath, as in David Gillespie’s book Taming Toxic People — the effects are even more insidious. Even people who know they’re good at what they do will begin to question themselves when daily faced with a boss who dives in and makes pointless changes to their work only to feed his own ego. A client dealing with one such manager recently told me, “I have been in this line of work for 20 years and I know I’m good. Still, the micromanaging and doubting of my boss is making me feel like a crazy person. I can’t trust my own instincts anymore and I’m making mistakes I wouldn’t normally make.”

What can employees like her do when they’re stuck in this kind of poisonous situation?

The easy answer is: LEAVE! But life is never that simple. We all have bills to pay, families to look after. And some of us actually really love the work we do. So if leaving for greener pastures is not an immediate option, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself and survive until you can.

  1. First, repeat for yourself this message as often as you need for it to sink in: This situation is external, not internal. In other words, the issue you have with your boss is not of your own making, but clearly of theirs. This is not your fault and, furthermore, you cannot fix them. Knowing this, you can move on to Number 2 …
  2.  Focus on yourself and how to handle the situation. Forget about agonizing over “why he said what he said” or “what she could possibly hope to achieve by doing things this way.” You can’t control the actions of your boss or your co-workers. You can only control how you respond to them. You’ll be better equipped to do this in a healthy way if you take care of you. How?
  3. If you haven’t already, spend some time thinking about your values and purpose. Try to find a way to consider your situation in light of those things. If one of your strongest workplace values is financial security, then you know why you’re staying in this job (at least until you can find another). If you discover that your purpose is to promote understanding and respect among people, it’s very clear why your current situation isn’t working for you. And you can move forward into a job search armed with that knowledge.
  4. Yes, you may be in a sea of negativity, but you can take steps — however small — to create a safe island for yourself. Physically, put a plant on your desk and some favourite art around you. Wear your favourite clothes and drape a colourful throw over the back of your chair or cubicle wall. Mentally, create a space that welcomes positive engagement with colleagues but discourages destructive gossip sessions.
  5. Any safe island needs a few walls to keep it that way. This is where boundaries come in. Even in a happy, healthy workplace boundaries are important, but when you’re suffering under poor leadership, they become key to survival. Don’t take work home with you. Make sure to take your breaks. Go home on time. Politely make it clear to your manager that you can’t be reached during your off hours.
  6. Find someone outside of work that you can talk to. While unloading a litany of complaints with colleagues can feel cathartic, it also feeds into more negativity. Ideally, an objective person is best in this situation — someone who isn’t in any way invested in whether you stay in this job or not. A therapist or career coach is a better option than a worried spouse, for example.
  7. Last: Start planning your next move. Once you’ve put Steps 1 through 6 into place, you should feel less demoralized and more energized to tackle a career change or, at least, a job search. Research other companies and industries. Talk to friends who can give you the inside scoop on their workplace culture. Remember, things are painful right now, but you can use this pain to learn what to look for in your next role.

Whether your boss is absent, in your face or frighteningly unpredictable, taking care of yourself can help ease the burden of a poisonous workplace atmosphere until you are ready to make your escape.



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