Virtually everyone has a bad manager story. But what about truly toxic bosses? According to a study by the Employment Law Alliance, nearly 50% of all employees have had a toxic boss at some point in their career. I know I have.
Should you run away from him as fast as you can? It depends (see below). Skillful management of the situation can actually be a career advantage. Accomplishing results under a difficult boss builds Emotional Intelligence, develops resilience and gets you noticed. Not bad if you can handle it.
Two caveats before we begin:
- A single toxic behavior doesn’t make for a toxic manager. Like most things, there are degrees of toxicity. Be careful not to generalize. For example, someone may have astronomical performance expectations, but otherwise is a likeable, capable manager. Or another manager may be insensitively blunt, but fair-minded. These managers happen to have huge blind spots that need to be brought to their attention.
- Not all toxic bosses are alike. Some are bullies who yell and scream. Some are sophisticated manipulators… quiet but tyrannical, with a complete lack of empathy. Check out Roy Lubit’s article for more details on the different types of toxicity.
We aren’t going to completely rid ourselves of toxic bosses anytime soon. When you review the literature, you’ll find there are different strategies you can try that can help the situation but each has its drawbacks.
- Lie Low. Acquiesce to her demands, try to avoid confrontation, hope that it gets better, or one of you leaves the company. This only works when you’re 100% sure she’s not your boss for long. Otherwise it’s demoralizing, creates a victim mentality, and invites further and deeper abuse.
- Reason With Them. Try to engage, explain how he makes you feel, or try to “work out” your differences in a heat-to heart. Unlikely to work. If this is someone who purposefully or uncontrollably makes your life a living hell, he doesn’t care how you feel.
- Report Them. You’ve had enough, so you bring it to HR. It’s often the “right” thing to do, and some situations almost demand it. Know that it’s a big risk. HR usually has a high bar to side with you over your manager. And you could win the battle but lose the war. You could get an undeserved reputation as a tattle-tale or a malcontent which could follow you for years. The good news: more organizations and HR functions are clamping down on toxic bosses, particularly around harassment. Get unbiased advice and proceed carefully.
- Fight Them. Confront them aggressively. Or use passive-aggressive tactics like pretending you didn’t hear them or acting out behind their backs. A Baylor University study clames it’s the most successful approach (which tells you how bad the others are, by comparison). Be extremely cautious. It requires excellent EQ, otherwise solid performance, and not a little luck. And it’s not exactly taking the high road.
- Leave the Company or the department for another role. This is often an excellent option. But not for everyone, and it can take several months to find a better situation. Also, don’t be surprised if you run into him again. Maybe because of a reorganization. Maybe as a project manager. Or hired to replace your boss at the new company. I’ve seen it happen.
A Better Way: Manage Your Boss
This is not a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. You should think about this like you would a project or a developmental assignment. Approach it with some rigor and discipline. There are three main considerations.
Manage Yourself: This is the most critical element of managing your manager. You must reframe how you think of your boss and your relationship. You will certainly need to make adjustments along the way, but you must fully commit to this new approach.
- Make the Decision. Is this the right approach? If so, attack this as a project, and think about it objectively. Put the focus on you… your performance, your career, and serving your clients’ best interests. While thinking about things like “destroying your boss” might feel good in the moment, the negativity will eat you up, and make it much harder to accomplish your goals.
- Be Positive and Maintain Your Self-Esteem. Keep focused on the end result. Management usually knows who the difficult bosses are and they’ll be impressed with how you handle yourself in the toughest of situations.
- Don’t Let Yourself Get Isolated. Continue to build your network. Maintain your visibility. Bounce ideas off trusted peers. Promote yourself discretely.
Be Openly Respectful even if he or she doesn’t always deserve it. Don’t engage in gossip or character assassination. Don’t make your boss look bad. It’s likely other people know at least a little about your toxic boss’ behavior. They are also looking at you and evaluating how you respond. And wondering, “would he treat me the same way behind my back?”
Know Your Manager: The better you understand what makes your boss tick, the better you can avoid, counteract or even leverage their own behaviors to everyone’s advantage. This is a capability that’s useful as you work with even the best of managers.
- Put Yourself in Their Shoes. Work to understand the challenges and pressures the boss is facing and be empathetic. Like you, she may have overly aggressive goals, too much on their plate, not enough resources, unrealistic timelines, or maybe even a toxic boss themselves.
- Ask Yourself What Motivates Them? When irritated by someone, most people perceive what motivates themselves in a positive light and routinely question the motivations of others. “He makes my life hell because he’s on a power trip.” Maybe. Could it also be that he is struggling to be a good manager and doesn’t understand that this isn’t how you do it? What have his bosses modeled for him?
- Learn Your Boss’s Strengths and Weaknesses. Employees and their managers are linked together whether they like it or not. So it is really important for employees to pay close attention to a manager’s work habits, management style, and how they operate on a daily basis. Observe:
- Likes and dislikes?
- Emotional intelligence?
- Personality quirks?
- What things set off the boss?
There is no substitute for finding out what makes a boss tick and understanding the things that motivate him or her. Failing to do so puts you at a disadvantage when developing strategies to work more effectively with your boss.
Collaborate: Even the worst bosses appreciate employees who help them look good. And, it’s relatively easy to work productively with people you like. Learning to collaborate with even the most difficult people will develops your EQ and boosts your career.
- Get Aligned. Do you know and FOCUS on your bosses goals? Have a conversation about goals, responsibilities and tasks.
- Communicate Their Way. Some people prefer to talk things through while others prefer to think about it first. Some people like long narratives, others prefer a few bullet points. Some want frequent communication, others don’t. Learn what your manager likes. And, don’t be afraid to ask. They will probably appreciate that you are taking their preferences into account.
- Be a Problem Solver. Never identify a problem or bring a complaint to your boss without having a at least one potential solution in hand that you have thought through. Better yet – provide options. Even bad bosses like employees who solve problems for them.
- Communicate in Writing as Much as Possible to ensure you’re on the same page and that you’re able to demonstrate your work. Make sure you adapt that writing to your boss’ preferences. After important meetings, send emails to confirm what was agreed upon.
- Pick Your Battles. This isn’t about subservience. You should still maintain your dignity, and stand up for yourself when necessary. The more you know about your boss, and the more you demonstrate your collaborative behavior, the easier it will be to address your concerns. Don’t do it often. Don’t do it in front of other people.
- Know When It’s Time to Go. Even if you do all of the above, you may decide that you can’t work in this situation. Decide when and how you’ll move on. Do it with grace and with a focus on maintaining as positive a relationship as you can. Burning bridges doesn’t help anyone. Document truly toxic behavior in case you need to provide it.
Every situation is different. Make a decision with eyes wide open about who you are, what you are willing to tolerate, what the pros and cons are. If you’re lucky, you may never work for a toxic boss. However, managing your boss is good advice no matter the circumstances. It allows you to take control of your performance and gain some control over the relationship with your manager in a way that helps you, your boss, and your organization.