Many people work for a toxic boss. It can be incredibly frustrating. What to do about it? Here are five steps you can take.
So you’ve got a toxic boss and you don’t feel like you’re in a position to change things in your organization. What to do?
There are five steps you can take.
But first, determine if your whole organization is toxic. If it is toxic, then you MUST leave. (Go directly to step 5 below.) To stay would be shortsighted.
“If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas.”
-16th century English proverb
And if there is egregious behavior (e.g., illegal, unethical, harassment, etc.), then you must report it.
Assuming your whole organization isn’t toxic and there are good bosses in other departments, here are the five steps you can take.
Step 1: Become a Triple Crown Leader
Begin employing the five advanced practices of triple crown leadership (our leadership framework that helps you build an organization that’s excellent, ethical, and enduring):
- Recruit for, develop, and reward people with both “Head and Heart.”
- Define the “Colors” (the shared purpose, values, and vision) of your team.
- Flex your leadership between “Steel and Velvet,” replacing poorly performing or dysfunctional team members.
- Unleash everyone to be “Stewards” of the organization’s culture and shared values.
- Boost your team’s performance though “Alignment.”
You’ll soon begin to see greater engagement and higher performance. Previous roadblocks will disappear. Innovative solutions to persistent problems will emerge. You may have to make some staff changes. You’ll likely become a talent magnet.
Step 2: Recruit Allies
Likely, you’re not alone in wanting to initiate a better way to lead. Others may approach you to ask about what you’re doing. Seek them out as well. Share the five triple crown leadership practices and their overarching aim of building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization. Encourage your colleagues to embark on the triple crown quest. Collaborate with them. Learn from each other. There’s power in alliances with like-minded colleagues.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Step 3: Engage Your Boss
Your boss is likely struggling to meet some goal. Toxic bosses often lash out because they’re struggling, creating negative consequences such as lower morale or lost customers. Raise key issues constructively with your boss. First get all the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions. Ask and learn first, seeking to understand. Offer to help. Become a trusted ally. Volunteer to help your boss alleviate some of those negative consequences. Frame the results you’ll start to achieve in clear metrics such as higher revenue or lower costs. Note you’ll still do all your regular work on time and on budget, and you’ll need some time to make some progress. (See Gregg’s article, “Leading from Below.”)
Then, go to the people involved in the challenges and coach them using the appropriate triple crown leadership practices noted above. You’ll make progress, impress your boss, and perhaps even show your boss a better way to lead. What an opportunity to make a positive impact.
Step 4: Jump the Chain
(Before you take this step, make sure you have at least six months of core living expenses to draw on if the situation blows up.)
If the steps above don’t work, consider taking a risk to help the organization by jumping the chain of command. Carefully seek someone higher up the chain to speak to. Be sure to get explicit agreement that the conversation will be confidential. Share your concerns that your boss’s behavior is hurting the organization, with specific examples. Describe your boss’s actions and their consequences as well as what you’ve tried to do about it. Perhaps your boss needs training, a coach or mentor, a warning, or an opportunity to succeed elsewhere? Request help. Demonstrate that you have the organization’s best interests in mind. Close by reiterating your appreciation for their time and the opportunity to have a frank, confidential discussion. While this step has risks, it’s the right thing to do.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Step 5: Leave Honorably
If the steps above bring no change, then you must either leave your position and find work with a better boss in the same organization or leave the organization completely. (See our article, “How to Find a Great Organization to Work For.”)
After you’ve found that new job, we recommend you find someone in a high position of authority at your current organization for an exit interview. That person should be someone who cares about the organization (e.g., a board member, the CEO or CFO, or founder). Share your concerns, your actions, and why you’re leaving. Don’t dramatize the situation. Be clear and factual. This exit discussion is the honorable thing to do, as it may help the organization avoid further problems.
Here are our recommended steps for dealing with a toxic boss:
- Become a triple crown leader
- Recruit allies
- Engage your boss
- Jump the chain
- Leave honorably (if necessary)
- Are you working for a toxic boss?
- Is the whole organization toxic, or are there good bosses in other departments?
- Are you willing to try to make changes to help your organization?
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
- “The Problem of Bad Leaders–And Why People Keep Following Them”
- “The Best and Worst Bosses: Implications for Leaders”
- “‘Take This Job and Shove It?’ Not So Fast“
- “How to Find a Great Organization to Work For“
- “The Dangers of Toxic Micro-Cultures”
Postscript: Quotations on Toxic Bosses
- “People quit people, not companies.” -John Maxwell, leadership author
- “Having a bad boss isn’t your fault. Staying with one is.” -Nora Denzel, tech executive
- “A bad boss is like a disease of the soul.” -Chetan Bhagat, author
- “Every leader is a boss, but every boss is not a leader.” -Amit Kalantri, author
- “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” -Dr. Seuss
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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!