When I tell people what I do for a living, they often respond, “My boss needs your help – they are a complete psycho.”
In reality, that’s probably not true: Psychopathy in the general population is around 1 in 100. The chances that your Network Systems Manager at the data center is a psychopath are pretty unlikely. But if you are working for someone who behaves in a bullying, combative, or otherwise toxic way, the impact on you can be devastating.
So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions that can help you cope with a bad boss.
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1. Make the decision to stay or go
The first step in dealing with a toxic boss is to make a realistic decision about whether to stay or go. If you feel trapped, realistically evaluate how severely the situation is impacting you emotionally and mentally. If you decide to stay, it’s important to develop some coping mechanisms to limit the effect of their behavior on your mental well-being.
2. Do the work: Don't be a target
If you decide to stay, avoid being a target – or by extension, a victim. You might think that means keeping your head down and staying out of trouble (which can be necessary), but it can also mean just the opposite. Do your work – and do it well. Consider going as far as you can to help your boss succeed (but that doesn't mean you have to suck up to them). It will make you less of a target, and others will notice your professionalism despite poor leadership -and trust me, you won’t be the only one to notice that.
Yes, you might help your boss appear better in the eyes of his/her superiors, and maybe they’ll even get promoted as a result. But if they get promoted away from you, that may not be such a bad thing.
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3. Don't get drawn in
Toxic people love to pull you into their drama. Don’t fall for it.
Stay a safe emotional distance away from them. Be polite, honest, and clear. Maintaining a safe emotional distance means that you are insulating yourself from them by not letting their negative behaviors or actions negatively impact you while you continue to work in a professional and functional way.
They may find this frustrating at first, but by keeping things 'strictly professional,' it leaves them with little room to maneuver and get under your skin. Work to treat them as just another aspect of your workplace – no worse than the printer that constantly jams or the terrible coffee from the vending machine.
4. Don't gossip
To help keep your sanity intact, distance yourself from the source. That means seeing the toxic person as separate and distinct from you.
You may not like or respect them, but don’t disparage them. Speaking positively of others – or at least resisting the temptation to speak negatively – is a strong demonstration of emotional intelligence. If you do need to vent, do it outside the workplace.
If your colleagues are also being negatively affected, you can lend support by offering an understanding ear, but make sure any discussions don’t devolve into negativity or personal attacks. If you feel like there is a legitimate case for bullying, intimidation, or harassment, consider getting HR involved ... which brings us to my next point.
5. Keep detailed records
If you find yourself the target of inappropriate or abusive behavior, keep detailed, accurate records – and don’t embellish.
There may come a point when you are asked to corroborate a complaint – either your own or someone else’s. Either way, your ability to make concrete, detailed references to your personal experiences will significantly support your case.
Vague references, unsubstantiated anecdotes, hearsay, or third-party opinions do little to move a complaint forward. Proving a pattern of toxic behavior through verifiable documentation will strengthen your case. Without detailed and accurate records, you are unlikely to get very far.
6. Don't derail your career
The last thing you want to do, or allow to be done to you, is to have your career derailed. This means doing your job to the best of your ability, and not giving the toxic leader the means or reason to start making you a target.
This might mean you have to bite your tongue. It may also mean you have to do work – or redo work – that you don’t think needs to be done. The secret here is to basically keep your head down, stay out of trouble, and wait the situation out. I have had people push back on me on this point saying that people should be able to speak out and against poor treatment by their immediate manager. I agree with this completely, and I often encourage people to do that when they have a strong and valid case. But speaking out against something like subjective standards of work, or a manager’s "style" of leadership are hard cases to make, and the actions taken against the dysfunctional manager are often minor or non-existent.
I've seen the employee come out on the losing end of that situation and end up as persona non grata as a result. In worst cases, I've seen promotions blocked and educational opportunities withheld or withdrawn. Take a long-term view here. As I discussed in point No. 1, you must make a stay/go decision for yourself, and if you decide to stay, then you may have to put up with some questionable situations.
7. Remember, it's not forever
For many toxic leaders, the lure of more power, prestige, and control means that they move positions frequently, so you may not need to deal with the toxicity for long. While you wait them out, focus on developing your skills and your network so you can find a new position if necessary.
One final note: You're not alone if you're wondering why organizations tolerate toxic people in their leadership ranks. The problem is these types of dysfunctional leaders are often very adept at projecting a successful image upwards in the organization. The can be well-versed in political maneuvering, glossing over or blaming others for past mistakes, and manipulating people’s emotions.
During the hiring process, a charming and engaging candidate can easily pull the wool over the eyes of less than experienced hiring manager. By the time they are safely in the organization and past the probation period, its often too late to easily do anything about their behavior. I hope you never have to work for a manager like this, but if you do, hopefully these steps will help.
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