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Urgent Tips for Companies Dealing With a Toxic Boss

Identifying and confronting a toxic boss is critical to your business' survival.

Source: Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock

Businesses must not look the other way when dealing with a toxic boss. Delay tactics, rationalizations, and complacency don’t work. Take urgent note of whether subordinates are rattled, disgruntled, conflicted, or angry at their boss. Is retention faltering? Have grievances been filed against the boss? Is there growing talk of lies and deception in the workplace? Are employee evaluations of a boss revealing disturbing issues and troubling patterns?

If employees are making repeated allegations of abusive behavior, offensive language, sexism, ageism, homophobia, inappropriate touching, temper tantrums, and/or serious disrespect, it is best to respond quickly. Especially in cases where there have been multiple employees issuing internal complaints or filing grievances against the same boss—the time is now. There is much at stake. The misbehavior of a boss not only causes upheaval and a variety of negative responses, but it also can negatively impact the organizational culture and model abusive behavior for a department, division, or company.

The following is a list of steps to follow in the event that you have received reports or documented evidence of a toxic boss or have witnessed the same. Organizations do best when they face a troubled, upsetting, abusive leader head-on in a very timely fashion.

  1. An accurate assessment or diagnosis must be achieved. This may be approached via internal experts (human resources; employee assistant program) or require subcontracting of external consultants, an executive coach, or a psychologist with workplace and leadership expertise.
  2. Do not be quick to pre-judge or engage in a premature assessment. Rather than targeting a misbehaving boss as the company source of destructive behavior, it is preferable to aspire to a differential diagnosis. In other words, the bullying and nastiness of a toxic boss may be a function of deeper personal and psychological issues (see the DSM-5; e.g., suicide, illness, divorce, psychopathology), or due to personnel and policy inequities and stressors in the firm. A systemic, differential diagnosis can identify causes of bad behavior that reside in multiple, diverse divisions of a company and identify multiple individuals, as well as policies and internal politics, corruption, and nepotism.
  3. Based on differential diagnosis, a company strives to prioritize the sources of toxic company and toxic boss behavior. What is the first, second, and third most urgent misbehavior, infraction, or abuse identified, and what intervention(s) will be utilized?
  4. Action in the form of intervention is initially taken in response to the most pressing and immediate perceived causes of abusive behavior or toxicity. This may be determined to be embodied in an individual boss or more broadly triggered by allegedly unfair, discriminatory corporate policies or players in the C-suite or HR.
  5. A designated company decision-maker or decision-making team (in collaboration with external experts) decide on interventions. It must be determined whether a currently dysfunctional boss can be effectively coached in the direction of more acceptable behavior. Or, conversely, decision-makers may establish with appropriate professional, labor, and company backing that specific individuals be removed and terminated from the company.
  6. When external experts are utilized (consultant/psychologist/executive coach), the decision-making and conflict-resolution process utilized and interventions decided upon may be viewed as a negotiation process, whereby internal and external agents all are committed to the best, most plausible solutions.

While the above tips constitute a beginning blueprint for dealing with a toxic boss, it is also necessary to acknowledge the myriad reasons why action and intervention are in fact necessary. Most importantly, bad behavior and abuse from a boss spreads and has numerous adverse implications for subordinates and the business as a whole. Viewed as a kind of organizational aberration or tumor, the cancer of a toxic boss may rapidly metastasize companywide.

The behavior of a toxic boss has far-reaching implications. For example, leadership may overlook that hundreds of productivity hours are lost when staff and professionals engage in a natural process of incessantly talking about the perpetrator, predator, clumsy oaf, and otherwise toxic boss. True confessions, painful and elaborate accounts of who did what to whom, and nonstop gossip and rumor mills infest the toxically stung workplace. The bad boss is the nexus of hundreds of faux therapeutic and complaining sessions on company time. Supervisors have a very difficult time observing, capturing, quantifying, or otherwise substantiating the many negative and bashing hours spent on diagnosing the boss and the damage done.

Of immediate interest and on target is the fact that management consultants and researchers have provided much data to substantiate that the toxic behavior of a boss finds its way into the mind, emotions, and psyche of employees, seriously undermining motivation and bringing down productivity. This toxic syndrome is substantiated as leading to turnover and falling retention, as well as producing a decadent mercenary and soldier of fortune mentality.

With fidelity to the company dissolving under a toxic boss, you witness a workplace increasingly populated by professionals who are permanently searching for another, less abusive, kinder, and gentler employer. This mercenaries-on-the-prowl are available to the highest bidder or to those companies that showcase and provide proof of a significantly healthier workplace environment. In essence, victims of a bad boss want to get out of a bad relationship—and that may mean 24/7 job-hunting (in part on company time) to find a more attractive alternative.

Finally, the reputation and brand of a business can be viewed as the first, second, and third most important factor in company survival, profitability, reputation, and longevity. Once news of a conflicted workplace populated by abusive, toxic leadership leaks out onto social media, it may be irreversible. Damage to the brand is deadly to the soul of business.

Thus, if this rings true to you, please consider rising to face and confront the bully, the abuser, and the otherwise toxic boss and be determined to get to the bottom of this threatening behavior, ASAP. An investigation, therapy, and deep, companywide cleansing may be urgently needed.

I might add that the urgency of dealing with a toxic boss is not limited to a specific business or industry. In my consulting, corporate psychologist, and executive coaching experience, I have directly experienced the toxic boss in such diverse venues as professional sports; academia; government; law firms; medical facilities and health care corporations; aerospace engineering; multinational ventures (U.S., German, Japan, U.K., France, Mexico, Canada, Israel, Middle East); automobile companies; dental practices; plastic surgery practices; the modeling and fashion industries, professional media; and in the ranks of entertainment: drama, film, music, and recording. The list is long.

The bottom line is that bad, combative, disruptive, rude, abusive, nasty behavior from a boss is not limited to a specific business or profession. Articles and reports appear daily that may reveal a cardiothoracic surgeon accused of repeatedly berating his surgical team. Or a producer or director alleged to be guilty of abusive behavior with numerous clients, including internationally known stars. Although we are deeply invested in positive psychology and positive organizational behavior, the dark, deceptive, demeaning side of leadership and power still permeates and decimates business relationships and profitability.

Although not pleasant, the toxic behavior gene appears to be deeply scripted into the human condition and may know no cultural or national boundaries (some celebrated, blessed, anthropologists search for loving, peaceful tribes and cultures). We are witnessing that the darker side of the human condition, identified as selfishness, threats, deception, and unethical tendencies, is rampant.

However, in a significantly smaller percentage of cases, we are actually experiencing surface manifestations and external behavior signifying psychopathology or disorder cited in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Accordingly, impatience, abruptness, and rudeness in a boss may be symptomatic either of an extremely decadent, troubled, and ornery individual or of an executive with adult ADHD. Moreover, publicly disruptive and disturbing behavior in the form of an explosive temper and screaming sessions targeted at publicly belittling subordinates may be signs of an Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED).

I urge you to carefully assess your company’s internal readiness to identify and deal with the boss who publicly insults subordinates, exhibits demagogue and tyrant-style behaviors, is alleged to be sexist or racist, or is so frazzled, impatient, obsessively critical, and offensive to a degree that it demotivates, frightens, and infuriates employees. Evaluate your readiness via HR, the EAP, and early detection systems via observations, feedback mechanisms, and 360 employee reviews of bosses. In the event that there is a gap, a lack of readiness and assuredness to deal with a toxic boss (or toxic company practices), then take immediate, urgent steps to make contact with an external expert, the sooner the better. Much is on the line, more than meets the eye.