Unfortunately, their toxicity doesn’t surface until you’re working with them.
Management consultant and author Robert Bacal says a toxic leader is a “leader who, by virtue of his or her own problems, creates an environment that drives people crazy.”
Jean Lipman-Blumen, professor of organizational behaviour at Claremont Graduate University in California, has a lot more to say about toxic bosses. “Toxic leadership seems to be an equal-opportunity career path,” she observes. Even though we’re supposedly smarter and more psychologically tuned in than we were a few decades ago, “we continue to tolerate – even prefer and sometimes seek out -toxic leaders who degrade our lives and diminish our happiness.”
Toxic bosses aren’t going away
Toxic leaders are everywhere. “We see them in every arena: business, politics, religion, education, athletics,” says Lipman-Blumen.
Examples of legendary toxic CEOs? She lists Al (a.k.a. Chainsaw Al or Rambo) Dunlap from Scott Paper and later Sunbeam; Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, Enron; Dynegy’s Chuck Watson; Linda Wachner, Warnaco; Gary Winnick, Global Crossing; WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers; and L. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International, to name a few.
“When we can’t be heroic ourselves, the next best thing is to associate ourselves with someone who transcends the achievement standard society sets for heroes,” Lipman-Blumen explains. “Geniuses are a subset of heroes whose achievements inspire us with awe. To work with them provides vicarious heroism. On another level, we like to feel we are at the center of things. So, we are willing to tolerate a destructive leader just to remain part of this elite group.”
Explanations aside, can a toxic boss be spotted before you’re hired? Almost never, because many have Jekyll and Hyde personalities. But, if a sixth sense tells you all is not kosher with this person or he’s too good to be true or he’s unconsciously gnashing his teeth, do some homework and speak to employees or former employees. Unfortunately, few of us are going to act on our instincts.
Typical toxic boss behaviour
What can you expect from toxic bosses once you’re unlucky enough to be working for them? Lipman-Blumen lists common destructive behaviours:
- Leaving followers worse off than they found them by deliberately undermining, demeaning, intimidating, and terrorizing them.
- Consciously feeding their followers illusions that enhance the leader’s power and impair the followers’ capacity to act independently.
- Playing to the basest fears and needs of the followers.
- Stifling constructive criticism and teaching supporters – sometimes by threats and authoritarianism – to comply with rather than to question, the leader’s judgment and actions.
- Failing to nurture other leaders including their own successors.
- Maliciously setting constituents against one another.
- Identifying scapegoats and inciting others to castigate them.
- Ignoring or promoting incompetence, cronyism and corruption.
Lipman-Blumen believes that toxic bosses can be managed to a certain degree. But she advises staying clear of heroics because it’s not going to get you anywhere. Going one-on-one with a toxic boss can be likened to spitting in the wind. You’re destined to fail.
Lipman-Blumen suggests putting together a coalition, falling on the proven principles of strength in numbers. “There are probably many others who share your concerns, but feel as lonely and isolated as you do,” she says. “Get them together and plan your strategy.”
Yet Lipman-Blumen also says that it’s unreasonable to count on major changes. The best hope is minor victories, such as less demanding work schedules and private chats rather than calling out a worker in front of peers. Some management consultants consider these changes significant.
If foolish enough to think that a toxic boss’s bad behaviour can be reversed, you’re wasting your time. Trying to straighten out a crazy boss is like trying to soothe a starving Cheetah about to consume you for dinner.
Best advice: Muster all your coping skills and try to make the best of a horrible situation until another job is found.
Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.
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