Picture this. After arriving to your new job, you’re covered in sweat because you’ve no idea where to park, and you look to find your manager. You see someone approaching with a puffed out chest and a voice that carries across the room like a barking German Shepherd. After introducing yourself and asking for some guidance, you’re swiftly dismissed and told to fall in with the rest of the lemmings to figure it out. Weeks pass by and repeatedly you overhear your boss say “I did…I accomplished…I completed” without any acknowledgement to the team who completed the work. As you approach the first month, you daringly attempt to provide feedback to an off-course project and are swiftly cut off at the knees by another “loyal” team member. The “yes” team is strong and solidly provides a wall around the narcissistic boss. Finally, you reach the exhaustion point and a half year into the job, you’ve lost track of the bullying, abuse, foul language, and coercive nature of your boss. You’ve entered into the force field of a toxic leader.  

1. Give Them a Chance to Change

Everyone has experienced a toxic leader, and it is not a one size fits all sort of situation. There are different solutions to navigating first steps with a manager who fits into the toxic role. Start with setting up a mirror in front of your manager to help them see their actions and reflectively describe the impacts of their actions. For instance, I used to have a boss who always used the knife hand to drive home a point and poked everyone in the chest. One day I responded with, “Hey, sir, last time I checked, I was a female. You probably shouldn’t poke me in the chest with your hand.” He was taken aback, apologized, and said, “I didn’t even think about that, I’m used to only being around men.” By informing him, his actions changed. First, give the person a chance to change their behavior through awareness. 

2. Confront the problem

When malevolent leadership practices continue, more action becomes necessary. Professional Development programs exist not only to grow leaders but also to expose this fatal flaw. The 360 degree review is a great tool for feedback and allows for reflection on leadership tendencies. Anonymous surveys, like the command climate survey, is a tool used in the military to give leadership an indication of how people view the climate where they work. However conducted, most critical is that the feedback get back to the person creating the most harm. The identification of the behavior is important to root out. By confronting the problem, putting it out on the table, and behaviors can change. Unfortunately, when training does not deter toxic behaviors, action by senior leaders is required. This could come in the form of a probation or termination. This is why whistleblower protection systems exist; to protect employees who were victims of toxic leaders or witnessed destructive behavior. 

3. Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

There are ways to ensure that you’re not a toxic leader. Actively seek feedback. The saying “leadership by walking around,” means something. Get out of the cube, office, or wherever you work. Stop blanket zoom meetings and Microsoft teaming by talking to people one-on-one. You must know the people you manage. Also, be clear about expectations and address standards and tasks providing guidance. Ensure you publicly reward excellence, praise the entire team, and punish in private. In all ways, work to make the person better. Step towards becoming a transformational leader and you eliminate the tendency for toxicity to enter into your leadership style.

First Impressions Aren’t Everything

My initial read on a boss I thought was toxic was wrong. He ended up being a great mentor to me. He embodied the saying, “There is more power in the open hand than in the clinched fist.” I just had to ask him to stop using the knife hand.

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Candice Frost is an active duty Army officer and a leadership consultant. Her work in intelligence on the Army Staff provides her unique insights on the highest levels of leadership in DoD. She is a public speaker who focuses on mentorship and leader development. She lives in Washington, DC and can be reached at candicefrost1776@gmail.com