How to Deal with a Toxic Leader - Part 1
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
The boss from hell! Have you had the pleasure?
No matter who you are or where you work, you will eventually face a toxic leader. As much as we wish that every leader would be thoughtful and impartial, the truth is this is not the case for many of us. Toxic and abusive people are present in many organizations, but it can be even worse when they are in a leadership role. It's important to understand that toxic traits are not leadership traits, and everyone deserves a pleasant and psychologically safe work environment. However, when faced with a toxic leader, you will need to find ways to cope. In part one of this two-part series, we reflect on ways to deal with this type of leader.
What is Toxic Leadership?
The qualities of a toxic leader can vary significantly, but there is a common theme of creating an unpleasant work environment and making employees feel unappreciated and undervalued. Toxic leadership can be confusing because the person might not always be toxic. Some leaders are experts in "faking nice" after an uncivil event to manipulate their social image. They are skilled at looking good after toxic actions, leading employees and even their superiors to forgive and forget without changing their behavior.
Unfortunately, a toxic leader does not keep their toxicity to themselves. In every case, their actions will spread out and leave a lasting negative impact on their teams. The effect of toxic leadership can be felt at all levels and include loss in employee motivation, high turnover rates, a lack of team creativity, low morale, emotional or mental discomfort, and anxiety. In addition, more harmful outcomes such as alcoholism, family conflicts, and health issues are more frequent than we would imagine.
Common examples of toxic behaviors include:
Insulting direct reports in public.
Making demeaning comments.
Invading employees' privacy.
Ridiculing and threatening people. 
Speaking down to the team.
Having favorites and giving them clear advantages.
How to Cope with a Toxic Leader
Before you can cope with a toxic leader, you must consider your values and personal boundaries. For some people, dealing with a toxic leader can be deeply personal. For others, it might involve actual action—and even risk.
1. Avoid the Leader
In the face of a toxic leader, many people opt to avoid confrontation or decide not to deal with that person at all. This method can be particularly effective when the leader in question is not your direct manager. However, when the toxic person is your manager, you don’t have the option of avoiding him/her.
2. Seek Help
More often than not, you may need help to deal with a toxic leader. When this leader is your immediate boss, it can be intimidating, and you might feel that it is impossible to solve the problem. Seeking help from a senior leader or a member of Human Resources can help you feel more comfortable approaching the topic. You can also talk with a mentor to find a good way to deal with the situation.
For a lot of us, the idea of confronting a leader can be intimidating. You might be afraid of backlash or worry that the disagreement might escalate. Still, in some cases, it is the necessary course of action. Try to find a way to respectfully tell the leader about their impact and how it is influencing the team, and be prepared to stand your ground, if necessary.
4. Do Nothing
There will always be the option to do nothing and simply put up with it. Unfortunately, this will not solve the problem and will leave you uncomfortable and frustrated with your leader and work environment.
5. Find another Job
Sometimes the situation at work comes to an extreme. If you dread the thought of going to work every day, feel physically and emotionally exhausted, waste your time thinking more about your boss than about your job, or feel unsafe at work, it's time for action. Consider other opportunities within your existing company (i.e., different department) or in another organization.
Leaders can make or break a team. A toxic leader will always hurt a team more than help it, which can have lasting effects. If you are struggling with a toxic leader, talk with someone you trust to make a plan. You deserve a healthy and pleasant work environment, so don't be afraid to do what it takes to make that possible!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you want to learn more, our 4-module Leadership Development Master Class for practitioners contains all the materials you'll need to improve your leadership skills to help you strengthen your connections with employees or clients. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a meeting to learn more about how we can partner with you to turn your leadership goals into reality!
Vera Alves is the Chief Consulting Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience in leadership development and business management.With over 12 years of experience as a C-suite executive, Vera is highly skilled in the areas of leadership, strategic planning, operations management, organizational behavior, and change management.She possesses highly developed communication, training, and linguistic skills reflective of a very strong and charismatic leadership style.
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