I’ve received more than one question how to deal with a boss that creates a toxic working environment by being angry, demeaning, unsupportive and generally make you dread going into work every day.Here are some things to keep in mind.
Be Objective: Take Stock of the Situation
A truly abusive boss is talked about quite frequently but is actually a pretty rare thing and you need to be sure you understand clearly what you’re dealing with. I once coached someone who honestly thought that his manager was created a toxic working environment based on the fact that he assigned him work, and then checked in for status updates. This is not abusive leadership.
What you should be looking for? Truly abusive leadership is likely to have several of the following REPEATED (not one-off) characteristics:
- Being humiliated or ridiculed in connection with your work
- Spreading of gossip or rumors about you
- Having insulting or offensive remarks made about your person (habits and background), your attitude or your private life)
- Being shouted at or being the target of spontaneous anger or rage
- Intimidating behavior, such as finger-pointed, invasion of personal space, blocking/barring the way
- Repeated reminderes of errors or mistakes
- Being ignored or facing a hostile reaction when you approach
- Being the subject of excessive teasing or sarcasm
- Threats of violence or physical abuse
- Spontaneous threats of firing in the heat of the moment
Here’s what abusive leadership is not:
- It’s not assigning you large projects.
- It’s not your boss asking you to make changes to a deliverable, even if they ask for a lot of changes that take a really long time to make.
- It’s not your boss asking you to change your process to one that they would prefer.
- It’s not your boss asking for information about the status of projects, or having weekly meetings with you where you are expected to report on what you are doing.
- It’s not your boss checking in and making sure you are on task as much as he or she pleases.
- It’s not your boss changing his or her mind about a project half way into it.
- It’s not your boss taking a project off of your plate that you really enjoyed.
- It’s not your boss having a bad day and snapping or shouting at you one time (we’re looking for a pattern of behavior here, and have to forgive people when they have a bad day – you will too at some point.).
The point is that your boss has the authority to do a lot of things that you may not necessarily like, but exercising that authority does not make them abusive and it doesn’t make your working environment toxic. It’s critical to make the distinction between your boss asking you to do things that you don’t like, and your boss being abusive.
Don’t Make Snap Decisions
You’ve recognized a pattern of abusive and toxic behavior. So, now what? When you’re dealing with a situation, it can be very easy to let the frustration get to you and quit one day in disgust. And man, would that moment of telling your boss to shove it feel amazing! However, you should never let anyone else make your career decisions for you. Quitting in the head of the moment is rarely a good long-term decision. Take your time with this decision instead of giving into the anger. Just take a step back from the situation so that you can design your career path with a clear head.
Don’t Talk About Feelings With Your Boss
It can be a natural inclination to try to reason with your boss on a human level. However, it’s a horrible idea. If your boss is truly abusive, he or she is emotionally immature and cannot be reasoned with in that way.Frankly, he or she could not give a flip about what you think or how you feel. This is a power play and any reaction that your boss sees to this behavior will just feed it.
Do Not Share with Others
This is critical. Seeking out social support is a natural instinct in this type of situation – you want to know that other people understand and helps you feel as though you’re a part of a group. But let’s play out some scenarios:
- Telling Your Peers. Not only does talking to your colleagues about the situation just makes the situation more painful for everyone involved (they’re now experiencing everyone’s pain opposed to just their own individual pain), but you’re also setting yourself up for one of your peers to share your comments with your boss in an attempt to curry favor. Then guess what happens: You get pulled into a meeting with HR and reprimanded for spreading rumors and gossip about your boss, a boss is doing nothing more than trying to get the most out of his or her team. You lose.
- Telling Your Boss’s Boss. If you go to your boss’s boss, the first question they are going to ask you is “have you discussed this with your boss?” You lose.
- Telling HR. Please repeat after me: NEVER TRUST HR. HR is not overtly against you, and there are a lot of well-meaning people in the profession. But at the end of the day, HR works for the company. They don’t work for the employees.The problem with this type of situation is that (at the time of writing) there is no law against a boss being a horrible manager, and very few organizations have policies against it that are actually enforced. Unless this situation involves sexual harassment or physical abuse or evidence of theft (in which case, you should ABSOLUTELY go to HR), you cannot trust HR professionals with complaints about management issues. Even if they assure you of their confidentiality, they are minimally going to hint around about the situation to others and eventually it’s going to get back to your boss. Then, your version of events is going to be nitpicked apart and compared with your boss’s version. When it gets to that point, all your boss has to do is show evidence of you screwing up once on something minor to “prove” they your boss is just frustrated with your performance and completely cut your legs out from under you. You lose.
Does all of this seem a bit dramatic? Yes. But this is one of those situations where exaggerations will win the day over logic and reason. If you’re feeling a bit alone at this point, that’s good. It’s a horrible situation to be in, but for the sake of being able to be in complete control of your own destiny, just keep quiet. People know what’s going on. They know and they feel sorry for you, but talking about the situation is just going to make it worse.
So, who can you share it with? Here are some options: Your spouse, your best friend (outside of the organization, and you better be positive that person is going to keep it confidential!), a therapist, or a coach. It’s perfectly fair to seek someone out to talk and vent to, but you just have to make sure that you are doing it confidentially and you’re doing it outside of the organization.
Be a Star Performer
One of the worst possible things you can do in this situation is to dis-engage with your job and your responsibilities. In fact, you need to take your performance to the next level to not give your boss any excuse to come down on you, though the odds are that they will find a reason to anyway. There are two sets of expectations that you need to keep in mind here:
- You need to know what your job description is, and what goals you are going to be held accountable to as a part of your performance review.
- You need to know what your boss’s expectations are, which may not be the same as how you will be evaluated on in your review!
Here’s the rub: You need to meet both sets of expectations. You focus on your boss’s expectations to keep the day-to-day interactions as uneventful as possible, but you also need to focus on your official performance goals because that is the standard by which the organization is going to judge you.
Make Your Move
Here’s a hard truth: In the vast majority of organizations, you are going to lose this battle with your boss. They are not going to change and you are not going to get the organization to force them out unless you have evidence of them doing something egregiously illegal or unethical. There are, of course, exception but this is the rule. By being pragmatic about situation, being cautious about who you’re venting to and continuing to perform your responsibilities, you’re setting yourself up to make the best next move for you, rather than making a move that you’ve been forced into involuntarily.
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