The new boss proved an able negotiator, winning himself an outsize compensation and benefits package. They even bought him a mansion. But at his first and only party for employees, he roped off most of the interior and installed backyard porta-potties. He located his office in a separate building. And before long, his penchant for arriving at meetings late, leaving early and staying just long enough to pronounce his edicts became all too apparent. During his tenure, organisational morale and performance plummeted. In just 28 months, he was gone.
Boss picture from Shutterstock
Just as effective bosses can do considerable good for an organisation, toxic ones can inflict a great deal of damage. By toxic, I don’t just mean incompetent — I mean malignant.
Over the past few years, I have visited a number of universities, academic health centres and medical departments, collecting stories about toxic bosses along the way. Many of these places are still struggling to claw their way out of the holes a toxic leader dug for them. The story that opens this article is just one of many I have encountered on my travels.
The first step to coping effectively with a toxic boss is recognising that you have one. Here are 10 indicators that a new boss is probably toxic.
- When a toxic boss comes on board, it feels as though all fellowship and joy are being sucked out of the organisation. Like Dementors in Harry Potter, toxic bosses drain people of their passion, leaving nothing in their wake but a widespread sense of despair. Employees come to resemble mice who have been subjected to random electrical shocks, lapsing into a state that psychologists call learned helplessness. As another former employee of a toxic boss put it, “It wasn’t long before the whole organisation took on a soulless feel.”
- Within weeks of the toxic boss’s arrival, the mercury in the organisation’s “distrustometer” begins rising precipitously. People begin eying one another with suspicion. Lively meetings become deadened, as though no one would dare voice a divergent opinion. According to one employee, “People stopped saying what they really thought. If they ever spoke their mind, they did so only after glancing over both shoulders to make sure no one was listening, and then they spoke in a whisper. It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
- Power becomes consolidated in the hands of a few people who report directly to the toxic boss. People who question this process are moved aside or completely out of the organisation. In many cases, the toxic boss achieves these ends not by direct confrontation, but like a subtle poisoner, delivering the lethal dose in tiny amounts that build up over time.
- Toxic bosses quickly seize control of the pathways along which knowledge is shared. Organisation charts and reporting hierarchies are rearranged so that everything flows through one central hub, with few if any alternatives. Without admitting to it, toxic bosses feel threatened by more open patterns of information flow. As the former colleague of a toxic boss put it, “He sensed that if others knew what was really going on, his position, power and prestige would be undermined.”
- With a toxic boss, employees may have a hard time remembering why they came to work for the organisation in the first place. The true mission of the organisation is obscured. The toxic boss shifts everyone’s attention to crasser metrics, such as revenue and rankings, and the organisation’s mission is treated as a mere tool for boosting results.
- Toxic bosses leave others feeling manipulated and used. Some are simply so insensitive that they do not appreciate the toll that their modus operandi takes on their colleagues, but others seem positively to revel in it. Said an employee, “She seemed to believe that the only way to make herself seem bigger was to make the people around her feel progressively smaller.”
- Soon after the toxic boss arrives, people begin disappearing. Almost invariably, such departures go unannounced, completely devoid of fanfare or explanation. One day they are there, and the next day they are gone, and only later do people learn that former colleagues were abruptly told one day to pack up their offices and hit the pavement. The toxic boss will never express gratitude to their service, publicly or personally.
- The toxic boss has no interest in what others have to say. Some savvy operators appear to listen to other perspectives, but when it comes to action, their in-boxes are black holes. They seem to believe that being an effective leader means being the centre of attention. Before long, their behaviour at meetings begins to reveal their true stripes. Said one former employee of a toxic boss: “She kept cutting other people off, belittling their contributions, and ended up listening to nothing but her own voice.”
- The toxic boss starts to act like a playground bully. People are treated not as sources of insight but as tools of implementation. When they diverge from this path, the toxic boss reminds them how easily they could be replaced. In short, the tools of persuasion give way to the instruments of coercion. And such techniques are powerfully augmented by the enhanced sense of vulnerability that accompanies the swelling ranks of the disappeared.
- Do you feel like your every move is being watched by unseen eyes? Like you are in some kind of jail? Do you feel like your boss taking leadership lessons from Jeremy Bentham? His creation, the Panopticon is a building with a watchman sitting at the centre, looking out on all the inmates, who are arrayed around the periphery, each in a separate cell. The inmates cannot see the jailer, generating a sense of constant surveillance.
Diagnosis: toxic boss. So what can you do?
One employee advised, “It is best to react with honesty and courage. Just point out the toxic boss’s impact and advocate as well as you possibly can for a decisive change of course.” One temptation to scrupulously avoid is fighting poison with poison. Don’t use toxic tactics to combat toxicity. This not only smacks of hypocrisy, it also compounds the problem by corroding the organisation’s culture even further.
When this happens, toxic bosses win.Richard Gunderman is Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University.