How to Positively Deal with Toxic Leadership


"Thus, we can take as our working definition of toxic leaders those individuals who, by virtue of their destructive behaviours and their dysfunctional personal qualities or characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on the individuals, groups, organizations, communities and even the nations that they lead." Jean Lipman-Blumen

Let’s get one thing out of the way: A toxic leader is not the same as an ordinary bad boss. Toxic leaders take things to a new level of misery for their colleagues and employees. Think Jim Jones, not your manager, Mr. Smith, who is disorganized and cranky, but not destructive and dangerous.

How do you spot a toxic leader--other than the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when that person walks into your office, or pops into your inbox? It’s tricky

They Charm You to Disarm You 

At first, the toxic leader, Mr. Snape, may seem cool, charming, exciting, and even brilliant. That’s all part of their process--to lure you in with candy and coffee, then poison you.

Mr. Snape will tell you he needs you on his side, on his team. He’ll compliment you and your work. He’ll make it seem like you’re in cahoots on his “big ideas,” like the two of you “get it” and others don’t. Mind you, Mr. Snape is running the same game on anyone who will play.

His goal: to charm you into letting down your guard. He wants you to trust him. He wants you to tell him your frustrations and secrets. He’s totally going to use that information against you later.

Warning signs: The signs can be subtle in the charming stage, especially if Mr. Snape is on his game. In order to sniff him out, you’ll have to pay attention and trust your gut. Look out:

  • He seems to be pumping you for information on your boss, your colleagues, your job, and your family. He’s baiting you, fishing for words he can twist later. Your best play: hold your cards tightly to your chest.

  • His words don’t match his actions. He talks a big game, but does little to back it up. He’ll likely enlist you to do the actual work. Mr. Snape might be notoriously undependable, and others around the office are quietly starting to question his abilities. He’s putting on a good show, but you can see behind the curtain. Your best play: do what your job requires but avoid becoming involved in his schemes, if possible.

  • He turns on you, if you don’t offer 100 percent allegiance. Notice what happens when you question him, his ideas, or his work ethics. He’ll know that you’re not falling into his trap, and it will infuriate him. He’ll talk trash behind your back. He’ll blow his top, if it appears you’re trying to take away his power. His power is everything to him. Your best play: document his actions and words, don’t meet with him alone, and if he crosses the line, consider reporting him to HR (weigh your options here, depending on the severity of his actions and if you can prove it).

They Offer to Lead You to the Treasure

Now that Mr. Snape has successfully gathered his loyal followers into his fold, he’s ready to sell you some property at the bottom of the ocean

He’ll take you on a treasure hunt. He’ll talk about the map, but never actually show you the map. He’ll describe the treasure so vividly that you can feel yourself spending all of those gold coins.

Here’s the catch: There is no treasure. Mr. Snape is building an illusion. Sure, it sounds fantastic, like one of those “lose 20 pounds by eating pizza and drinking beer every night” ads. But it isn’t real.

How do you know if Mr. Snape’s vision is real or make-believe? Let’s turn to the top scholar on toxic leadership, Jean Lipman-Blumen, who states that a grand illusion: 

  • Is unattainable

  • Casts the leader as savior or hero

  • Presents evil as virtue

On the other hand, Lipman-Blumen states that noble visions are attainable, cooperative, for the greater good, and tend to bring our best selves to the surface.   

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a grand illusion from a noble vision. People are susceptible to following toxic leaders and falling for their grand illusions because we often prefer fairy tales over documentaries.

If the grand illusion is pretty and shiny enough, many of us will believe in it, fight for it, and in the most extreme cases, die for it.

Your best play: Think critically. If something seems too far-fetched or out there, it might be. The trick is to not blindly follow someone just because of his title, social status, or because others seem to love him. Decide for yourself, if he's worth following. 

Evaluating Your Leader

Once workplace toxicity levels reach nuclear, it will be painfully obvious to everyone that your leader is a rotten apple. By then, there will most likely be a path of damage and destruction that can take years to repair.

Here are a few questions to assess your leaders for toxicity before nuclear-level:

  • Do their words match their actions? Are promises to employees and customers consistently kept or broken? Do they tell you to act one way, then do the opposite?

  • Do they usually treat people well? Do they treat everyone equally? Or do they belittle the employees lower on the org chart?

  • Is their decision-making process sound? Do they seek (and listen to) input from employees and customers before making decision? Do they make decisions that are harmful to others with no good explanation?

  • Do they accept responsibility for their actions? Or do they constantly blame others when things go wrong? Do they take credit for work they didn’t do?

  • How do you feel when you’re around them? Do you walk away from meetings energized or drained? Do they lift people up or try to drown them?

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -- Maya Angelou

What to Do If You Work with a Toxic Leader

There isn’t an easy answer to this. The most obvious exit route is to find a new job. This isn’t always as clearcut or as simple you wish it were. 

So, what can you do, if you can’t quit? 

Detach from the drama: Easier to say than do for most of us, but it can be done. In the book, Working with You Is Killing Me, the authors recommend “unhooking” yourself. The authors say you're hooked if the toxic person’s behavior has you in knots physically, emotionally, and/or mentally.

They offer a four-step process:

  1. Unhook physically: Release tension in your body by breathing deeply, going for a walk, etc.

  2. Unhook mentally: Talk some sense to yourself. Remember, you control your reaction and a big, emotional reaction is exactly what the toxic person wants.

  3. Unhook verbally: Speak up for yourself in a professional way. If Mr. Snape slides in a cutting comment during your meeting, ask him to clarify.

  4. Unhook with a business tool: This could be an email summarizing a meeting. It could be a formal complaint about Mr. Snape, if things have reached that level. Basically, you’re using formality and procedures to document his actions and stand up for yourself.

Bottom line: While you can’t control anyone else's behavior, you can control your reaction to it. The unhooking process helps you do that.  

Final Thoughts on Surviving Mr. Snape

You now know a toxic leader is destructive, poisonous, and possibly dangerous. You also have tips for spotting them and surviving their antics.

You should be aware that some toxic people inflict physical violence. Know the warning signs. Trust your gut. Protect yourself and others by reporting warning signs to management.

Remember, it’s not your fault Mr. Snape is toxic. It’s hard, but don’t take it personally. Be kind to yourself in this situation. Toxic coworkers and leaders are just plain bad for your health and well-being. Be sure to seek physical and emotional help when needed, and practice self-care.

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