Perspective: Toxic Bosses

You know that expression, “If I Knew Then, What I Know Now”? It’s been on my mind a lot lately when I think back to a time when a new boss made me feel incompetent, useless…..and old. I was about 44 at the time, imagine that. I had been thriving in my role and had earned respect and accolades from colleagues and managers. I jumped at the opportunity to take on a new job. It presented a learning curve for me but I was grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself and master new skills. I quickly found myself in a situation in which my work was constantly criticized in front of my peers in an open space work environment. I was paralyzed to ask questions for fear that the bullying would recommence. At the end of each day I drove back home feeling humiliated and demoralized. It may say more about my Inner Critic, than this manager’s intention, that I allowed someone to have this power over my thoughts. But this isn’t a discussion about why, it’s more about what would I do today if the same situation presented itself.

I’ve been a career coach for over 5 years now. I’ve taken training courses, listened to webinars, read books, joined coaching communities, and coached hundreds of clients. The number one thing I’ve learned through coaching is perspective. To me, perspective is the ability to look at a situation calmly, from another angle, with little emotion or attachment to the result. In other words, pure curiosity. We get really good at this when we coach others. Being able to get perspective in real time for oneself is harder, but it’s a muscle we can build if we are intentional about it.

The recurring existence of toxic bosses or toxic behaviors in the workplace, is surprising. We’ve given ourselves permission to bring it to the surface and talk about it. Leadership trainings have become de rigeur for managers in large organizations. There are widespread discussions on the topic of Emotional Intelligence and how important it is in the workplace. Teams are encouraged to be empathetic to one another and to develop better listening skills. There are even team building exercises (now adapted to the virtual world). We know what leadership behavior should look like. The bottom line, yes it’s coming, is this: Good managers (as well as colleagues on every level) should inspire, support, and encourage. Sadly, it’s not always the case.

From the vantage point of where I stand now what would I do differently?

1. First, I would ground myself in the knowledge of my abilities and achievements. Human beings have a greater capacity to store negative data than positive data. One critical comment can become a stronger force in our minds than years of praise. What am I most proud of? What proof do I have that the demeaning words of this person are true? What can I believe instead?

2. Have a go-to phrase that allows my manager to know that I need another type of dialogue in order to get my job done. It could be something like, “I do really well when you give me clear directions and positive encouragement”.

3. Set small but impactful well-being goals that allow me to feel empowered and supported:

  • Find a mentor

  • Replace negative thoughts, as they surface, with positive ones

  • Create opportunities to exchange insights and experiences with colleagues I admire and respect to pump in some positive energy and get support

  • Remind myself how this job fits into my bigger strategy for my career. How is this job a stepping stone towards a more meaningful and fulfilling career? If I am able to see it as just a stepping stone, it's easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

4. Establish a time limit. How long am I willing to sustain the current environment before I make a choice to leave?

5. Develop an exit strategy well in advance

  • Update my resume and LinkedIn profile.

  • Ask trusted colleagues to endorse me and write recommendations on LinkedIn.

  • Set Open to Jobs function on LinkedIn (being sure to select "can be seen by recruiters only" button).

  • Inquire about other opportunities within the organization. Make at least one HR team member my ally and ask to be informed when positions open.

  • Research other companies and available positions.

  • Speak to a headhunter or recruiter.

  • Hire a coach to champion me along the way. If I do lose perspective, and the walls come closing in, there is a lifeline available to me--and someone with a broader perspective--to grasp when I need it.

When we're "in it" we don't always see these options. We learn to tolerate.

I was lucky. After feeling stuck and unhappy for a very long time and not seeing a way out, another manager recognized my talents and hired me away to work on her team. However, the cost of my inertia had been a heavy one on my wellbeing and family.

Today, I would have tools at my disposal to make an empowered choice.

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