Toxic Bosses and What to Do About Them

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on May 31, 2017

I frequently speak to groups of employees from a wide range of for-profit and nonprofit organizations about how to develop into more effective leaders. At nearly every session, a question is raised about how one can deal with a toxic boss.

When I ask for a show of hands of those in the room who have worked for a toxic manager or know of one in their organization, many hands go up. One wonders why the senior leadership of these organizations tolerate these types of managers, given the damage they cause to their direct reports and to the effectiveness of the organization.

In November 2014, I wrote an article headlined, “Do you work for a tyrant? Do you have one working for you?” I would like to share what I wrote in that article.

Tyrants who disrespect their direct reports cause untold damage to the performance of their organization as well as make life miserable for those who work for them.

These managers tend to micro-manage, blame others for their mistakes and sap the creativity, initiative and vitality from the workplace. They also adversely impact the ability of people to make decisions without “checking with the boss.”

No one can effectively do their job in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. No employee should have to work in such a toxic environment. The best people don’t put up with it, and they eventually leave the company, resulting in a significant loss of talent that will adversely impact the firm’s performance and potential for growth.

I once worked for this type of manager and learned how to deal with him. One day, he was ranting about an issue, and I politely told him that I was going to leave his office, and when he calmed down and could discuss the issue in a rational way, we would again talk.

I don’t think anyone had ever said something like that to him before. And yes, I was concerned about being fired for insubordination, but it was one of those moments when I had to change the dynamic between us.

Twenty minutes later, he came to my office and in a calm and business-like manner, we discussed and decided on a strategy to resolve the issue at hand. He never treated me like that again.

This incident occurred prior to the introduction of whistleblower hotlines. The human resources department did not have a strong leader, and I did not want to risk going to executive management, so there was no path to lodge a complaint. I was very close to leaving the company until this event occurred and I learned how to deal with him. Had I left, the company would have been deprived of its future CEO.

I was eventually promoted out of that manager’s organization and became his peer, and then promoted again and became his boss. He continued to treat the people in his organization poorly, so I terminated him. The employees within that organization celebrated for days.

I replaced that manager with a very effective leader. It took him months to bring the organization’s employees to the point where they were again operating as they should.

Once more these employees were making decisions on their own. They were exercising initiative and creativity, taking personal ownership of their part of the business and not being fearful of making a mistake, which was career threatening under the former manager.

Many of these poor managers “manage up” very well. It is the responsibility of every leader to see through this and to ensure that their direct reports are treating their people professionally and with respect.

So, what should you do if you work for this type of manager? Do your job, and do it well, which is what you should always do. This will lessen the probability that you will be treated poorly. If you do work for this type of boss, you will learn much – how not to manage and lead people, and the damage this type of manager can do to an organization.

You can use the whistleblower hotline of your company to report this type of manager. Even though this is a human resource issue, whistleblower hotline complaints are reviewed by the audit committee of the board. Having served on the audit committees of many organizations and given my prior experience with this type of boss, I focus on these issues. The audit committee needs to hold the leadership of the organization accountable for addressing this issue. They need to ensure that a proper investigation occurs and what action is taken, up to and including termination, if appropriate.

It is important to ensure that there is no retaliation against any employee who uses the whistleblower hotline to report this type of manager. If the company’s employees do not have confidence in the leadership of the company, they may be fearful of using the hotline. If this is the case, the company has more serious issues beyond the tyrant.

So, as the CEO or other high-level executive of a company that has tyrants working in your chain of command, deal with the issue. In many cases, these individuals can’t change their management style, so you will need to part company with them. They should never be tolerated.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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