The Boss from Hell: Toxic Leadership – Part 2
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Many of us have worked for a boss who has bullied, belittled or tried to intimidate their employees. I’m often baffled by how unaware these individuals are that they believe instilling fear into their followers will earn them respect. Quite the contrary! These toxic leaders undermine their leadership role and reveal their insecurities. Today, I’m going to share my Boss from Hell story during my career in transportation and logistics from the perspective of the five coping mechanisms we discussed in our previous post. So, how do you spot a toxic leader? I’m glad you asked!
Here are a few characteristics of a toxic leader
1. Arrogance – they believe they are always right and expect that no one will question or challenge them.
2. Lack of Confidence – despite their arrogance, a toxic leader has no confidence in themselves or their ability. They suffer from imposter syndrome (i.e., self-doubt, insecurity, trepidation over their inadequacies), resulting in bullying followers to make themselves feel better.
3. Incompetence – a toxic leader tries to hide their incompetence by criticizing others and engaging in other negative behaviors discussed in a previous post to deflect from the fact that they are ineffective in their leadership role.
These characteristics breed dissatisfaction among employees resulting in disengagement and demotivation of followers. They also result in the loss of top talent who decide to separate from the organization and jump ship as a form of professional survival.
In our last post, we discussed five ways to cope with a toxic leader. Here’s how those coping mechanisms relate to my story.
Avoid the Leader
In a perfect world, this would be great, but what happens when you can’t avoid the toxic leader because he/she happens to be your direct manager. I’ll tell you what happens…you’re miserable because, in the interim, there is no escape. The sales team, myself included, was constantly hassled by this individual. He tried to micromanage every aspect of our work and repeatedly made condescending and threatening comments such as, “I’ll fire you,” regularly during staff meetings.
I fought back during these staff meetings and openly criticized his management style, which fueled the flame. I was in my 20’s so I approached every meeting with him like a UFC cage fight. I should have had an initial private meeting with him in a non-confrontational manner to try to get him to see that his leadership style was demoralizing the group. I grew up watching boxing, so instead of coming out swinging and looking for the knockout in Round 1, I should have paced myself, concentrated on my footwork (i.e., to avoid being metaphorically hit), and focused on conditioning to endure this match (i.e., sought out more advice to learn how to cope with the stress and fatigue).
I documented every meeting and abusive comment he made, contacted the Director of Human Resources, and shared my concerns with her on four separate occasions. I asked for guidance on dealing with this individual as the toxic work environment continued to escalate. To paraphrase the response I received, she told me to put up with it or find another job. HR had failed me!
Find another Job
So, I decided to resign from the company and didn’t find another job. Instead, I decided to go back to school full-time to complete my Bachelor’s degree. I knew that for me to succeed professionally, I needed to focus on my education to advance my career. The week that I resigned from the company, I filed a formal complaint with human resources against this manager with supporting documentation of his toxic behaviors and left the company at the end of the week. I felt that the Director of Human Resources represented the views of the executive management team and believed that nothing would come of my complaint. In hindsight, I should have filed the report and waited out the investigation process. Who knows, perhaps that would have made a difference in the long term. In the end, another team member made the decision to file a complaint, but HR dismissed the complaint, and the toxic leader remained in his leadership role for many years.
Some people would say that I should have done nothing and just accepted that working environment. However, this type of approach only prolongs the inevitable. I always tell people, “Silence is acceptance.” If you remain silent, you are only fueling their negative behaviors. Standing up for yourself can be difficult, but it’s necessary.
A caution to organizations that are reinforcing the cycle of abusive leadership
By giving bosses a pass when they verbally abuse employees, organizational leaders and employees reinforce the cycle of mistreatment that pervades so many companies. Research indicates that toxic bosses don’t change as much as we would like them to — instead, the bad behavior tends to continue or, often, gets worse. It’s HR’s responsibility to look out for the best interests of employees and management, and that means that sometimes you need to go into battle for your employees when you know that you have a leader who is toxic and destroying morale within your organization.
So how do you deal with this type of toxic leadership within your organization?
Adopt a zero-tolerance policy and actually reinforce it! There is nothing worse than an employee being subjected to toxic leadership and watching the organization condone it.
Terminate the employee. Research indicates there is little organizational leaders can do to break the cycle of self-centered, manipulative, and uncivil behaviors. Instead, cut these individuals loose and set the tone that the organization will not tolerate toxic leadership.
So now, thirty years later, what have I learned from this experience. I have a better understanding of how to deal with this type of toxic behavior and know how to be firm and influential at the same time. But, most importantly, I learned about the kind of leader I would never want to be!!
Dr. Cristina Rosario DiPietropolo is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience across multiple industries and highly skilled in the areas of strategic planning, organizational behavior, human resource management, change management, and leadership. Over ten years of teaching experience as a university professor of management, with a special focus on leadership in entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and international management.
 Johnson and Smith (2019). Mentoring Someone with Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/02/mentoring-someone-with-imposter-syndrome 06/15/2021.
 McClean, S. et al. (2021). Stop making excuses for toxic bosses. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2021/01/stop-making-excuses-for-toxic-bosses?autocomplete=true 06/08/2021.