Behind the Executive Door

Where personality meets leadership.

The Brilliant But Toxic Boss

Tips for managing a toxic leader

Some years ago I was coaching a number of very talented people who all reported to the same brilliant boss who was President of R&D for a global manufacturing company. While there were differing development needs among these coaching clients, they had one over-arching issue in common: dealing with their boss effectively. One project leader said, "I get paid for my science not this bad leader crap but we just keep our heads down and focus on the work hoping our results will transcend everything else we're enduring here."

As brilliant as this boss was scientifically, he was seriously flawed interpersonally. His mood fluctuated daily between expansive euphoria and the hostile denigration of others. He was rarely satisfied with anyone's work and had an almost sadistic habit of criticizing people openly in front of others—including high visibility events when the CEO and/or Board members of the corporation were present.

Everything about this boss was big and loud—his size, his voice, his possessions, and most of all his opinion of himself. Needing to always be the smartest guy in the room, he dominated meetings, short-circuited discussions by imposing his views onto others, and routinely described other senior executives in the company, as well as his direct reports, as stupid and inept. Reportedly, he had had an infra red lighting system installed on one of his Humvees so he could watch desert tarantulas mate at night. Some  believed this hobby captured the essence of his personality: dark (nocturnal), twisted, and voyeuristic.  

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In short, the behavior of this boss met the criteria of what I have recently described as a Toxic leader.

These criteria include:

  • Lopsided leadership—emphasis totally on facts and data, i.e. left brain rational reasoning at the expense of integrating right brain interpersonal considerations.
  • Lack of emotional intelligence (EQ)—minimal self awareness, inability to control emotions —especially anger, lack of attunement to others - absence of empathy, and poor interpersonal relationship skills.
  • Unproductive narcissism—excessive love of and focus on the self; leadership behavior is most motivated by getting one's own needs and career aspirations met versus those of the team or organization.

While I have identified three primary leadership types—Remarkable, Perilous, and Toxicbusiness leaders are conceptualized as moving along a behavioral continuum of these three types. Examples of business leaders who were more Toxic than not include the infamous Al ("Chainsaw") Dunlap (Scott Paper and Sunbeam), Ken Lay (Enron), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), and Dennis Koslowski (TYCO). 

MANAGING THE TOXIC BOSS

If you are experiencing the daily torment of working for a Toxic boss—and for practical/personal reasons cannot leave your job—here's some guidance that might prove helpful:

  • Peerage—unlike the scientists described above decide to communicate more and deepen your relationships with peers at work. This would go beyond the cathartic sharing of you-won't-believe-what-he/she-said yesterday; it would focus on ways to make the situation potentially more tolerable. Key inter-related aspects here include:
    • Overt acknowledgement of each others' strengths and accomplishments
    • Active shared problem-solving with peers on issues that need to be resolved for the team and/or organization to succeed
    • Not letting the boss divide and conquer. Uniting with peers to identify and present another approach to a business or organization issue when the boss's behavior is unduly self-focused
    • Maintaining your internal locus of control, i.e., clarity about your own talents and accomplishments and the belief that you can control your own work-related destiny based on these talents and accomplishments.
  • Start to Plan Your Escape—whether the time is right or not, you might get at least some palliative pleasure from starting to think more seriously about leaving your current situation. If/when you start this thinking, here are some factors to guide you:
    • Envision the specific role you might secure elsewhere
    • Engage others who know you well in serious discussions of the rightness of that role for you given your background, experience, accomplishments and skill sets
    • Be ready to endure the anxiety that can take hold once you decide to leave current employment; remember that it's the real and pervasive excitement you have about your "next chapter" that will help sustain you through this rocky period
    • Embark upon the pursuit of your next career step with a well-thought plan about how you will achieve it
    • When you identify your potential next job, make sure to screen your prospective boss, i.e. avoid exchanging one Toxic boss for another! Ask questions about how he/she makes decisions, how he/she manages people, and how he/she channels their major capabilities to achieve objectives.

Surely Toxic bosses are difficult but there are proactive ways to try to manage them. While you might be thinking, No way—nothing's going to help with my boss—you might also be surprised by how incremental peerage and/or escape-planning efforts could really help make your  time at work more tolerable.

 

Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn is a licensed psychologist, executive consultant and author of Behind The Executive Door: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career.

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