How to spot abusive leaders, why they’re rarely fired, and strategies to cope or force change
Years ago I worked for a boss who was not just a bad boss, not just inept, but who verbally abused and threatened me and other employees on a regular basis. The whole place ran on fear and loathing. This boss was toxic.
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You know the type.
Self-serving, egotistical, out for the win at any cost, willing to trample anyone perceived as getting in their way, jacking off to the sound of their own authoritative voice (and yes, male leaders are more prone to toxicity than women). Whether middle managers or CEOs, these abusive overlords alienate teams, destroy morale, fuel stress and anxiety and otherwise damage employee health and well-being, in the workplace and beyond.
“Leaders might think that shouting at or berating their employees will make them pay more attention to their work, work harder to avoid further hostility, or spark a desire to prove the leader wrong,” said Shannon Taylor, a professor of business management at the University of Central Florida. “The reality, however, is that toxic leaders are effective in spite of — and not because of — their hostility.”
Such hostility, which can range from subtle gossip or gaslighting to childish outbursts of outrage to outright discrimination or sexual harassment, is sadly common in the modern American workplace.
One in five U.S. employees called their workplace somewhat or very toxic, according to a Harris poll last year. Among large U.S. companies, toxic corporate culture was the most important factor cited by employees who quit during a six-month period of the Great Resignation in 2021. Toxicity was 10 times more likely to be the cause of departures than pay levels, according to an analysis in the MIT Sloan Management Review.
Having worked for and alongside many great, good and terrible bosses over the years, companies small and large, I set out to understand why toxic bosses are so common and persistent, how to spot one, and what employees can do about it. Step 1 is to get inside the heads of toxic managers and CEOs and recognize the signs and symptoms of their reproachful, destructive behavior.
Signs of a toxic boss
The best bosses I’ve worked for all had three in common: competency, calmness and empathy. They had skills and experience relevant to the job, acted like adults, and were genuinely interested in the well-being of their direct reports and other colleagues. They created environments where hard work was encouraged and rewarded, and people enjoyed their jobs and worked well together.
Not so with toxic bosses, whose harassment, bullying and ostracism causes “unnecessary stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety among the workers,” according to a 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Some toxic bosses are easy to spot.
Workplace expert Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, says “terrible office tyrants” (aka TOTs) often “revert to fussy, unrestrained babies in corporate suits.” You work for a TOT if he is often “stubborn, demanding, fickle, self-centered, has a short attention span, needy, whiny or throws tantrums,” she writes.
The bad behaviors of a toxic boss are often less obvious, however, consisting of the proverbial thousand paper cuts that ultimately rip apart an individual psyche or destroy an entire team.
Simon Dolan, PhD, a well-being expert and professor at the Advantere School of Management in Spain, investigates the personality types and causes of toxic leadership around the globe. In his new book De-Stress at Work, he identifies five main factors:
Jealous of their team’s success
Constantly concerned about competition or workplace “enemies”
Often take credit for other people’s work
Constantly compare themselves to others
Consider their self-worth to be solely driven by their latest results
“Whether knowingly or not, a toxic leader is one who abuses their authority and violates trust to satisfy their own ego,” Dolan said. “A bad leader can demotivate teams, cause low morale, and the effect on teams can be devastating.”
Toxic bosses can be unpredictable micromanagers who make unreasonable demands and workers’ time and performance. They may even be full-blown narcissists—know-it-alls who are able to function at an incredibly high level yet somehow mask their deep-rooted selfishness and sensitive egos that cause them to lash out aggressively.
Narcissistic bosses bully, humiliate and blame employees while never taking responsibility for their own mistakes, explains Joseph Burgo, author of The Narcissist You Know. And they can be vindictive. “Extreme narcissists always need to prove that they are ‘winners’ in comparison to other people they view as ‘losers,’” Burgo said.
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Deeply rooted insecurities
Not to defend narcissists or justify toxic leadership, but rather in the interest of understanding its causes, Dolan points out that the pressures of a job with great responsibility can contribute to a leader’s awful and abusive behavior.
“They are required to hide their feelings even when under immense pressure,” Dolan explained. “Pretending to be a superhuman causes a lot of damage to the mind and body.”
Toxicity isn’t simply learned during leadership, however. The roots of these emotional shortcomings may go way back, often involving a lack of emotional intelligence — an element of wisdom involving the ability to grasp and manage one’s own thoughts and feelings and understand the emotions of others.
“There are many factors that contribute to a toxic personality, including a compulsive need to display their worth to others, but mainly out of a lack of deep-rooted self-esteem,” Dolan said. “This is usually a culmination of a lack of ethical and emotional development throughout their lives.”
Good bosses figure out how to balance the confidence they need with compassion, a skill that starts with being realistic about their strengths and weaknesses and managing emotions in a calm, rational way. Studies have found that leaders with high emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ, are more resilient, more successful over time and especially better at navigating difficult situations.
“Although leaders are expected to be confident, it is important not to confuse this with over-confidence,” Dolan said. “A great leader needs to be respectful, supportive and nurturing of growth — not just someone who is self-assured.”
Why toxic bosses stay in power
In hindsight, I have one regret in how I dealt with that toxic boss of mine long ago. Perhaps you can learn from it.
One day, in front of my coworkers, I was accused of insubordination and given a choice: Get on board or walk out now. I rocked back-and-forth on my heels for a second or two that seemed like minutes, all eyes either on me or downcast. I made the decision to stay. I should’ve walked, I should’ve stood up to the bullying, for myself and for the people who worked for me. But I was young, lacked the knowledge I now have about toxic bosses, and I had family to support and no other job prospects in mind.
Such are the challenges for abused employees. And besides, identifying a toxic boss isn’t always so straightforward.
Even having developed the five factors of toxic leadership, Dolan can’t identify a single characteristic that easily defines a toxic boss, he told me. Rather, it’s the cumulative effect of multiple factors. And there are no diagnostic tools to define and identify the behavior.
“Organizations, by and large, do not know or do not care about the style of management of their leaders and bosses,” he said. Sure, overt physical force could get a boss fired, but because their specialty is “psychological guns, you cannot see the spill of blood. The process is invisible and that’s why it is so dangerous.”
Abusive bosses don’t want to appear as such, of course, so they’re apt to take inauthentic steps to repair their image. They might throw big parties at work, even invite employees to lavish gatherings at their home — showing off their polo ponies or whatever — or make the rounds through the building offering a smile and lots of back pats.
But the seemingly kind gestures are often a charade. Such a temporarily gracious leader may have no intention of actually changing their ways.
One example, from a study published in the journal Personnel Psychology: Bosses who’ve called a subordinate incompetent, invaded their privacy, or made negative comments about them to others are more likely to, say, do small favors for the subordinate instead of apologizing. “Their focus was on covering up their bad behavior through manipulative ingratiation and self-promotion behaviors, not on actually changing their toxic behaviors,” the researchers concluded.
Supervisors often fake nice rather than making genuine amends and changing their behavior, said study team member Shawn McClean, an assistant professor of business management at the University of Oklahoma.
“The end result of this is a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, where managers gain ‘forgiveness’ for their actions without ever having to change the behavior,” McClean told me.
And the issue runs deeper. Some managers struggle to understand the threshold of toxic. When McClean describes it as things like putting employees down in front of others, invading their privacy or reminding them of past mistakes, some will ask if that isn’t just managing with high expectations. “The answer is clearly no,” he said. “A manager can hold employees accountable to a high standard without resorting to denigration and toxicity. But the fact that many managers and organizations cannot see the difference is troubling.”
Results outweigh bad behavior
Toxic bosses are sometimes forgiven because their harsh methods yield results, which not just overshadows the bad behavior but reinforces it. A classic example, McClean said, was Steve Jobs, lauded for his visionary accomplishments at Apple yet notorious for belittling employees in front of others.
“The bulk of attention to Jobs has been on what he could deliver, not how he delivered it,” McClean said. “The same thing holds for bosses in general. Often, companies will turn a blind eye to the negative behavior of a boss if they can ‘deliver the goods’ otherwise. And research supports this notion, showing that managers who enjoy more power, prestige, and success are more willing to abuse their employees.”
Making matters worse, the toxic behavior can rub off, with some mistreated employees feeling they need to adopt the bad behaviors in order to get ahead, according to a study last fall in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Among employees who’ve experienced hostile behavior from a boss — ranging from sexual harassment, humiliation and misuse of power to inappropriate language — 68% saw similar aggression among others in their workplace, the study found. These employees also reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion and 77% were worried about job insecurity.
“It’s clear from our study that hostile behavior at the top of a workplace is not only likely to be damaging to individuals in terms of their emotional exhaustion and job security, it is also likely to encourage other employees to act in unethical ways, creating a toxic environment across the entire organization,” said Nadeem Khalid, PhD, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and strategy at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K.
What you can do
The experts I spoke with all agree that dealing with a toxic boss is tricky at best, but not necessarily hopeless. “The unfortunate truth is that employees are often relatively powerless to stop their boss’s destructive behavior — at least directly,” McClean said.
Still, there are several strategies to consider:
Communicate effectively: Before you write your boss off as a tyrant whose head must roll, make sure you’re doing your part to build a good relationship and properly understand the ruler’s motivations and actions. This can be especially important if you work remotely, without the benefit of in-person contact. Lynn Taylor, the author, suggests overcoming your internal introvert and staying visible, whether in person or via Zoom meetings. Check with your boss whenever you’re in doubt about expectations, she advises, and seek feedback on your performance. Also, turn up your EQ: “Being sensitive to others and being a positive problem-solver are especially coveted now,” she writes.
Confront the boss: If your supervisor’s bad behavior seems temporary or related to something outside work, and if you think they may not be aware of the toxic effect and perhaps are good-hearted deep down, then confronting them politely but directly could work. “Calling managers out on this kind of behavior — when it is temporary and unintentional — may help curb it in the future,” McClean said. “But approaching this from a place of educating the manager, rather than chastising them, is critical to ensuring that they are open to correction.” Instead of “It was wrong when you did such-and-such,” try “When you did such-and-such, it made me feel…”
Set silent limits. “Bullies love to see people cower,” writes Sherrie Campbell, a psychologist in Yorba Linda, Calif., and author of Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person. Her advice: Focus on your body language. “Turn your body away from your boss every chance you get. Give your boss the side of your body or the back of your body at all times. When you have to be face-to-face with your boss, focus on lifting your chest and your chin. This posture gently but firmly communicates that you’re open to talk and not intimidated.” (I’ve written before about how your body language can create perceptions of knowledge and power or insecurity and weakness.)
Go around the boss: Dolan, the author, suggests a strength-in-numbers approach. Anonymous surveys could be used to glean a comprehensive view of a particular boss, for example. You could then seek an alliance with a senior person in the company, and point out that removing the toxic boss could enhance productivity of the whole team. Or: “Employees could report the boss to HR, but HR doesn’t always have employees’ interests at heart,” said Shannon Taylor, the University of Central Florida professor. “Reporting the boss might not lead to any changes to the organization or to the boss’s behavior,” he said. “Even worse, reporting could lead to retaliation.”
Turn to others: Discuss the mistreatment with your spouse, a friend, or a trusted colleague, aiming specifically to reappraise what you’ve experienced and try to view it in a different light, Taylor suggested in an email. Or: Minimize interaction with the boss by leaning on others in the company for the information you need to do your job, McClean advised.
Learn how not to behave: My experience with that toxic boss years ago yielded one positive side effect: I learned how not to lead. I became kinder and more understanding of my team’s challenges, feeling a responsibility to shield them from the toxicity as best I could. I could have done more. There’s some science to this: A series of experiments led by Taylor at the University of Central Florida found that if a supervisor defies the abusive behavior of their toxic boss and distances themselves from it, they’re more likely to show respect and kindness to their own employees. “Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” he said.
Get out. And if all else fails, as it often does under a toxic boss, Shannon Taylor suggests the obvious to those who are able to take the advice: “Ultimately, abusive behavior points to problems with the culture, so my advice is for employees to get out,” he said. “Look for a new job and try to avoid the boss until you can quit.”
Contributed by Robert Roy Butt
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