While sipping on my new favorite tea (moroccan mint), I looked up and saw a former co-worker of mine out of the blue. A very pleasant surprise! I can’t tell you how elated I was to see her! It’s been quite some weeks since we’ve last hung out. Seeing her walk into one of the most urban chic ambiance cafes this side of Atlanta at tea time (mid-afternoon), I knew she must not be at our former place of employment anymore. She confirmed: she quit. I knew it!! I literally high-fived her and was beaming with happiness at her freedom! Something we talked quite a bit about. Freedom from what? A toxic work environment. She filled me in on how it had gotten so unbearable for her there – especially after the election, the inner-office commentary was getting very openly sexist, people were posting political messaging on the copier and on the wall in her workspace, etc. (It’s a relatively small organization with literally zero HR). I was genuinely happy to know she’d freed herself from that place.
No one deserves to work in a toxic work environment. However, work and live long enough – you’re bound to run across an extreme personality that’s not only hard to get along with but also cultivates that culture of toxicity, distrust and demotivation. What makes it worse is when those people happen to be in leadership positions – senior roles or even ownership roles. You can get around not dealing with toxic personalities when they’re not your boss or above you in any way. But when they are? Get prepared – this is about to get rough (unless you have no spine at all, zero self-respect or are in general a complete yes person. Right. I didn’t think that was you.)
Here’s 10 things I learned about those personalities over the years in the hopes that it may help you navigate such a negative and taxing situation:
- There’s usually a community of people who also don’t like them. If you have a personality like mine that gets along with mostly everyone, it can be hard to accept when someone doesn’t like you or seem to get along with you. You will tend to take their criticism of you to heart – thinking you’re the only one they’re targeting. Not so. In these situations, they tend to be – unfortunately – known problems. (Which would also beg the question: why do organizations tolerate them?) If they’re in a leadership position, that means many people have potentially been exposed to their venom. There’s a little power in knowing you’re not alone. Being able to commiserate with others – while only a temporary release – is still somewhat relieving and cathartic.
- It’s not you, it’s them. Toxic people are generally very unhappy people. They’ve got a lot of personal insecurities that they tend to take out on others. In a leadership position, that often manifests itself as an abuse of power. If you have a record of proven success, of good rapport with coworkers in managers in the past and you know very well that people don’t normally respond to you in the manner that this individual does, know this: it’s not you. It’s them. That’s important to know because, again, you’ll otherwise want to turn inwards trying to see if they’re criticisms are true. Unless you’ve heard those criticisms over and over in your career, it’s likely not.
- They see you as a threat. Toxic people in leadership positions target those whom they see as a threat. They tend to like to be the smartest person in the room. The one with all the answers. The go-to. The reliable one. Some even want to be the “best looking” in the room – if they’re a bit vain at all. If you’re a threat on any level to those things, they will find a way to exclude you from the table. Why? Because they don’t want your ideas to get out there and for people to realize it’s actually you and not them behind these great new solutions or projects to try.
- They’re NOT a real leader. This is not real leadership. Real leaders don’t seek to criticize for the sake of criticism. If they criticize, it’s meant to grow you – not tear you down. Real leaders don’t belittle. Real leaders aren’t dictators. Know the difference. You’re not dealing with a leader. You’re dealing with a toxic person in a leadership position. These people are abusers of power. Would anyone follow them in real life? Likely not. But in the workplace they get to exercise powers they otherwise wouldn’t have. Therefore, they abuse it. If you’re feeling abused it’s because you’re not dealing with a real leader. You’re dealing with a severely insecure individual on a power trip.
- Maintain your authenticity (i.e. stay true to YOU). Throughout all of this, no matter how hard it gets, you’ve still got to stay true to you. Do not compromise on your morals, values or convictions just because they’re on their eternal war path. Keep your head up. Maintain your integrity. Continue to grow an excellent rapport with your community (see #1) and all other coworkers and managers in your circle of influence as you can. They just may help you with #6.
- Get your exit strategy together. You’ve gotta be prepared to leave – at any time and as soon as possible. Document everything (BCC / forward pertinent email / messenger correspondence to your personal email as back-up). Seek advice from HR when you can (in some smaller companies, you may not have that luxury, unfortunately). But know that you will not be able to stay true to yourself and live a fulfilling life (career or otherwise) as long as you are subjected to this toxic situation. Highly ill advised.
- Be prepared to deal with the pettiness. Toxic people are extremely petty. They tend to be micromanagers and perfectionists to a fault. It’s likely why they got in the positions they have to date – they’re personally able to produce results but they have no idea how to work in teams. Again, because of #3, they truly intend to make your life hell. I’ve had a female indirect manager once question my entire line of thinking. “I just don’t understand your thought process on this. I don’t understand how your mind-mapping works.” Insinuating that my logic was completely flawed and made absolutely no sense. You are about to deal with a lot of…petty.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge them. They can often be quite wrong. Don’t be afraid to challenge a toxic leader, but when you do, be prepared to back it up with considerable data, information and feedback from other teammates, customers, etc. as appropriate. Again, don’t do this until #6 is together, but this is critical to item #5. You are YOU no matter where you go. A toxic personality should not change that. The worst thing you can do is shrink because of them. Continue to shine. Continue to do great work. Do not let that toxicity extinguish your light. You have a job to do – for however long you happen to be there. Get the results you need to sell yourself on your next interview.
- Ask the right interview questions. When you do start interviewing again, make sure you ask about the personality type of your reporting manager, teammates, etc. In an appropriate way, you’re ultimately trying to figure out if anyone there is a micromanager, has a “difficult” personality, etc. Ask what their current employees who report to him/her think of their management style – what kind of manager do they think he/she is? How do they prefer to operate? Do they expect you to constantly check in with them or will you have autonomy? Are they open to accepting and adopting ideas from their team or do they like to have all the vision and solutions? There are ways to find out what you need to know.
- Put LOTS of “positivity” back in your life. Working with a toxic personality is like going to work everyday with a bucket full of holes in it. If you don’t continuously keep putting a greater level of positive stuff in the bucket, you’re going to always be running on empty. Not only is that bad for your attitude and morale, it’s horrendous for your health! I once knew a co-worker who literally had a heart attack because of a toxic leader’s reaction to an email they accidentally sent – acknowledging that they agreed he was a jerk and being ridiculous about something petty. Even after you leave, you will likely still need a healing period to restore your confidence and enjoy the freedom you now have. Enjoy it. We’ll send you an “I survived” t-shirt. 😉
Those are my 10 things to know about toxic leaders. Do you have any other tips? Would love to hear about them.