Toxic leadership, or leadership that negatively affects the people and culture of an organization, is nothing new. A toxic leadership situation shares many similarities with a traditional abusive relationship: simmering stress and tension, escalated by more overt inappropriate verbal or psychological manipulation, an uneasy resolution in which the abuser may make excuses for their behavior or blame the victim, followed by a period of passivity (aka “good days”) in which both parties attempt to ignore or minimize the damage. Although the power dynamics of a workplace make things particularly complex, there are concrete ways you can improve your situation with a toxic leader.If you find yourself working for a toxic leader and you don’t know how to make your situation better, first: know you are not alone. Unhealthy relationships with supervisors are a leading reason why people leave their jobs, and some estimates report that half of all Americans have quit a job because of their boss. While there’s no easy or “one size fits all” answer when it comes to a toxic relationship, here are some approaches that may work for you:
Bend without breaking. It’s unlikely that a toxic leader is going to change their ways unless they are forced to, and even then, those negative traits are typically ingrained in their personality. So, as a first line of defense, try to adjust your own approach to align with your leader’s style. Oftentimes, toxic leaders will have irrational triggers that set them off. If you’re able to identify and avoid those triggers, you may reduce the frequency of abusive incidents directed at you. Building a strong support system with your coworkers can also help minimize the sting of the abuse and provide an outlet for healthy emotional processing. If you don’t have a network of coworkers, consider speaking with a career therapist. Of course, changing your own behavior to avoid abuse is not an ideal situation—but based on the power dynamics at play, the only thing you may have control over is your own reaction to the situation.
Consider legal action—or at least, the threat of it. Abuse that explicitly targets your gender, race, ethnicity, age, or religion is illegal under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Even if the abuse is not targeted, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) has successfully won cases for employees who have suffered deliberate emotional pain by their supervisors. Although this may seem extreme, you don’t actually need to contact OSHA in order for this to be an effective solution. If you are able to assemble a clear and strong case against your leader—written or recorded instances of abuse, or multiple accounts across many employees—you can present this to HR as a convincing reason to remove the leader from their position of power. Executive management can be held legally responsible for ignoring reports of abuse; if your case is compelling enough, it’s doubtful that they would risk it or put the company’s reputation on the line.
Get out. While this isn’t our preferred recommendation, it may be necessary depending on the severity of your situation. Think of what you might recommend to a friend who was in a personal relationship with someone who behaved like your leader: would you encourage them to stick around and hope things improve? Or would you advise them to cut their losses and move on before things got worse? A toxic leader can poison your professional life and seep into your personal life as well. The negative and permanent after-effects of working for someone who demeans or manipulates you are not worth any position or promotion. If you haven’t already, actively search for a transfer to a different department or a new organization. While it will be incredibly frustrating to let someone else’s abuse of power dictate your own career path, realize that you are actually doing yourself a favor by extracting yourself from this no-win situation.
When it comes to working for a toxic leader, the only wrong move is to do nothing. It empowers your supervisor to continue hurting people, and it takes a very real toll on your own mental health. You have options, you have worth, and you have the right to work for someone who is a true leader.