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Case Study in Toxic Leadership

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The new head of operations called each of the department heads into his office one by one—and each one raced to the bathroom afterward to throw up or cry. By the time he reached Cathy, the manager of the support services department, she knew that she was in for a punishing interview. The head of operations began by accusing her of poor record-keeping (he angrily waved a timesheet that didn’t add up correctly), allowing her team too many personal days, and failing to exercise oversight. 

But Cathy kept her cool and used SMaRT strategies by drawing on her assertiveness, self-management, and communication skills. She thanked him for pointing out her mistake and promised to be more careful in the future; referred to the employee handbook to support the number of personal days allowed; and—when he asked if she was taking his words seriously and threatened her job—assured him she was a team player. She left without any visible signs of being shaken but immediately called a mentor to find out what else she could have done and to work off her adrenalin. 

The head of operations prodded her team for ammunition against her, but Cathy had long ago proven her commitment to the team and their internal customers. He found no support in that search, and Cathy was never targeted by him again.

Difficult leaders appear up and down a company’s hierarchy. In their 2017 study, the Workplace Bullying Institute reported that 61% of employees saw or experienced bullying in their workplace, and 61% of that bullying was by bosses. Yet when bullied employees complained, 65% lost their jobs.

Why is toxic leadership allowed to continue? Among other reasons:

  • At least in the short-term, those leaders improve engagement and decrease turnover; and most toxic leaders are often shifted enough so that the long-term effects of their behavior are hidden behind those short-term results.
  • In a tight job market, those short-term benefits may be enough to make higher-ups reluctant to fire even a well-known problem.
  • Some corporate cultures actively reward bad behavior: complaints are a sign of weakness; grabbing credit and bullying behaviors are signs of strength.
  • Toxic leaders often have superior social skills, at least with people they want to impress; they are politically astute and use their connections for their own gain.
  • A toxic leader may be flourishing because of a specific favored relationship with a protector; this possibility is a concern in family-run businesses, for example.

Whatever the reason, you are very likely to encounter toxic leadership at some point and need ways of dealing with the problem that keeps you safe and free from stress.


Before declaring that you have a toxic boss, make sure there is no or little basis for their anger. Listen for information that may indicate a reason for the behavior. Observe the boss in other situations: are the anger and bullying truly chronic, or was this a temporary glitch?

Since even a toxic boss can be right some of the time, Cathy was willing to acknowledge her mistake, but she did so without debasing herself or cowering. Establishing a professional level of communication is vital in dealing with any difficult person at work and helps to establish you as an equal, not a victim.

TIP: If your boss is constantly negative about results, try recognizing the problem (“I know you are upset about…”) and then pointing out any benefit (“But we have now learned that…”).

Prevention Is the Best Cure

The best way to handle a bad boss is to avoid having one. Before even applying for a job, check out the reputation of a company and its leadership on social media. Trust your instincts during interviews.

If you are stuck with a toxic boss, start investigating other positions in your own company or outside it. You are the one in charge of your career and your mental health. Merely knowing you have taken options will give you greater resiliency in dealing with toxic leadership.

Keep Calm: Don’t Fight Anger with Anger

When a toxic boss humiliates you in front of others or rants about small or imaginary mistakes, you may have it difficult to hide your own anger. But toxic bosses are much better at shouting, contempt, and bullying than you will ever be. By staying calm, you change the dynamic.

You may also discover clues about what triggers your boss’s emotional response. Trying to understand the boss’s psychology will probably lead you in circles. But knowing triggers—meetings held before lunch, a report sent by email rather than hand-delivered, even a cheerful expression in the boss’s presence—will enable you to work around some of them.

Some of the SMaRT strategies for anger management are especially helpful when dealing with a chronically angry boss, in particular, not blaming yourself for the other person’s anger and championing solutions.

Have Your Facts Ready and Communicate Them Often

When you know what is expected of you, you can start anticipating what your boss needs. A daily update on your projects, for example, might keep a micromanager at bay and stop accusations that you are not making progress fast enough or not dealing with problems. Overshare to set your boss’s mind at ease and maybe even develop trust.

If you keep yourself and your boss informed of time constraints, deadlines, and other potential points of contention, then instead of making excuses, you can offer solutions. In Cathy’s case, being able to cite the employee handbook enabled her to defuse that situation.

You should also keep notes of expectations and behaviors. The notes on expectations will allow you to refresh your boss’s memory and your own, while subtly prodding the boss to act more professionally in case the notes ever become public.

The notes on behaviors will allow you to be specific when you confront your boss (see the Learn to Say “No” below) and may give you instances of the boss’s good behavior to encourage. The notes will also help if you decide to pursue the problem with Human Resources or someone higher up in the company. But if you do that, try to bring supporters with you, people who can also testify to the toxic behaviors.

TIP: If your boss doesn’t communicate, ask for a meeting (“Would you be available on Monday for a short meeting to better align our goals/make sure I understand our goals?”). Use your active listening skills to clarify expectations and take notes.

Learn to Say “No”

It is not your job to permanently walk on eggshells around your boss. You have the power to say “no” to toxic leadership and to call out bad behavior. Conduct that confrontation in private, not in front of an audience, and to be specific about the behavior that bothers you. Dr. Harry Levinson, an organizational psychologist, recommends these words: “I’m sorry you feel you have to do that, but I will not put up with that kind of behavior. It has no place here.”

If you allow your boss to take over every waking moment, your stress will continue to rise until it damages your health and you are unable to cope. If you are unable to handle anger, bullying, and manipulation, be honest with yourself: you may have to say “no” to your job.

TIP: Some bad bosses are more clueless than toxic. For example, the head of one department wanted everyone’s desk set up the exact way she set up her own desk because she worked more efficiently that way. But her system depended on keeping her most-used supplies at her right hand—and two team members were left-handed. No matter how much a boss insists that their way is better, you might say, “I understand your way and have tried it, but this method happens to be more successful for me. As long as my work continues to be accurate and productive, I hope you will allow me to use this method.”

Build Your Ties with Other People

In Cathy’s case, she found she could count on her team to back her up and her mentor to calm and reassure her. By building and developing her team, Cathy created ties of support and a common culture that was resilient enough to stand up against bullying without fear.

While you cannot appoint yourself guardian of your team, you should share with them techniques that work and your expectations, including staying calm. In addition, you may want to confront your boss about behaviors with your team that interfere with their productivity or morale or have other impacts on your team a toxic boss might not even notice. Besides, sometimes it is easier to stand up for someone else first.

Similarly, Cathy was able to reach out to her mentor without hesitation. You may find support from family, friends, or a professional coach who will provide objective feedback and if needed, guidance on how you might improve your response in the future.

Key Takeaways

Toxic leadership affects you, your team, and the company but may be difficult to prevent. SMaRT strategies, like building a support system, learning how and when to say no, and anger management, help you to weather and confront a toxic boss. Eventually, you may make the decision to leave the company—and the stress—behind you, to guard your own mental and physical health.

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