Many employees (including supervisors, mid-level managers, and even executives) report they work for toxic leaders — that is, someone who is mean, demanding, and unpredictable; someone who will use unscrupulous tactics to get what they want. A toxic leader is damaging to the health of those around them, both emotionally and physically.
Here are some of the foundational traits of toxic bosses that are helpful to know:
1. They Look Good — at Least, Initially
Toxic leaders are often articulate, socially skilled, and persuasive. They may be physically attractive and smart, have impressive resumes, and posses excellent skills in the technical aspects of a business.
2. They’re Extreme About Achieving Goals
Most toxic leaders are intensely committed to achieving goals. Hyper-focused on accomplishment, they use all of their resources to pursue their goals, and they are adept at getting others to complete tasks for them. It is important to note, however, that their goals are driven by self-interest and self-promotion.
3. They’re Narcissistic
Toxic leaders truly believe they’re superior – that they’re brighter, more cunning, and more talented than others. They view any good results as due to their talents, efforts, and leadership, and they think they should get the credit for everything good that has happened. Although they won’t say so publicly, they believe rules don’t apply to them and are only for “little people.”
4. They’re Manipulative
Toxic leaders are masters of manipulation — both of information and people. They’re masters of image control, making things look good by maintaining close control of all of the raw data. For the sake of “the larger cause,” toxic leaders will use and sacrifice those who work for them, no matter how loyal.
5. They’re Condescending
Toxic leaders almost always relate to others in a condescending manner. Since they believe no one else is as talented or bright as they are, they think their ideas should always be received with respect and deference. Be forewarned: do not challenge them in front of others. When they don’t feel appropriately respected, they tear down those they see as threats to their authority.
How Do You Survive?
First, you must understand that toxic leaders are primarily concerned about themselves — their career, their success, their image. As a result, you need to take appropriate actions to protect yourself. If a situation comes up where they have to make a decision between defending themselves and defending you, you will take the fall.
“Protection” may take the form of documenting all conversations and decisions. A helpful strategy is to follow-up a meeting with an email that says: “Just to confirm our discussion earlier today …” They can then either correct you in writing or (more likely) they will not respond. Another way to protect yourself is to have an objective third person in the room for any important conversations or meetings, so they can verify what was said or decided.
When you work for a bully boss, it is critical to take care of yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. Set boundaries on how much you are willing to work. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Maintain friendships. Engage in activities that are renewing for you.
A third important step is to seek input from those who can give you objective, wise input. Toxic leaders have a way of making our thinking “foggy,” so we don’t think clearly about ourselves or the situations we’re in. Have someone on your side who can give you a reality check when necessary.
Finally, make sure you have supportive relationships to help you through the difficult times. The support can come from someone at work, your family members, or your friends. It is critical not to try to “go it alone” or bear the stress yourself. Doing so will put you at risk for burning out or getting sucked in to a dysfunctional system that will chew you up and spit you out.