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Dealing With A Toxic Boss Or Co-Worker

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Thursday, April 14th, 2016
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Toxic bosses are not an endangered species.  In fact, their prolific breeding puts rabbits to shame.  If you have never had a toxic boss or a co-worker, somewhere down the line, you will soon – unless you have reached complete retirement stage and you are your own person.

We all know them. The supervisor, who constantly berates their people. The team leader, who creates division within the group instead of harmony. The manager, who condescends to talk to the individuals in their group, but never listens to their input. These are toxic bosses.

Bad bosses contaminate the workplace. Some do so obliviously, while others smugly manipulate their employees, using them as instruments of their own success. They sap the energy of the individuals in their groups. They are belittling, petty and loud. They consider themselves better than everyone else and they don’t care who knows it. All they care about is “getting the job done”. Or maybe it’s “straightening this place out”. In their drive to achieve their goal they ignore or overlook the other people in the organization. And in the end it hurts them too.

It is important to you, as a manager or executive, to be able to recognize these toxic bosses. They can significantly decrease production and increase cost. They can make a large company an unpleasant place to work, and they can kill a small company.

How to discover a toxic boss

Often all you have to do is walk around. Out of your office, employees may seek you out to point out their toxic boss. If this doesn’t happen it may be due to the fear that the toxic boss generates in the organization. Then you have to get the information in other ways.

Talk with clients, or even former clients, of your company. Listen to the side comments they make as they answer your direct questions about something else. Ask them about the managerial strengths of the organization and be sensitive to what or who they leave out.

Look into overhead costs. One of the biggest costs of a toxic boss is in personnel issues. Often these costs are collected into overhead accounts rather than charged to operating units. Even if your company’s annual turnover rate is within norms for its industry, look into the numbers.

Does one group have more people quitting (or retiring) than the others? Have there been instances where several individuals from the same unit have left the company in a short period of time? Does one department have higher overtime costs than the others. Have the employees in a particular section been using up all their vacation and more of their sick days than the average?

What should you do?

An individual who is a toxic boss didn’t get to where they are without being good at something. If they weren’t good at some particular facet of the business they would have been let go long ago. You need to assess the value of this individual to the company and weigh it against their cost to the company.

If the toxic boss has increased production by ten percent over the past year the stakeholders may not care if the turnover rate in that department is higher than average. However, if you document that the cost of goods sold has increased by five percent during the same period, because of increased training costs, payments to employment agencies, sick leave costs and increased overtime, you will get their attention.

Your actions with respect to a toxic boss will depend on the circumstances. You can recommend coaching or advanced training for the toxic boss. Maybe the individual should be transferred to a position with less responsibility for people. Perhaps the goals set for the individual are unreachable, which has caused their toxic boss management style, and should be adjusted.

Be sure to document and quantify the measurements that you use to determine that a toxic boss is hurting the company. Use overhead expenses as well as direct costs to demonstrate true bottom line impacts. Finally, use the same measurements to quantify the benefit to the company when your actions resolve the toxic boss problem.

Being on the receiving end of bullying behavior in a professional environment is hard to talk about. Given the emerging awareness of the danger and punitive sanctions against workplace bullying, we’d all be forgiven for being incredulous that it’s still happening.

Bullying is usually conducted by people with low self-esteem and a need to exercise power and control. We go to work expecting to communicate with other professional adults – It’s a shock. It’s easier to make excuses: it’s just a misunderstanding, a personality clash, or you must be overly sensitive. But bullying behavior at the office can be downright toxic, affecting workplace satisfaction, creativity, productivity, and the health and happiness of even the most competent and confident worker.

Despite increasing knowledge of diminished organizational effectiveness to potential life-threatening trauma from bullying, and the educational programs, work bullies continue their unacceptable behavior. Here are five ways to handle a toxic co-worker or boss.

  1. Validation

Find a trustworthy co-worker, mentor or professional to use as a sounding-board. It’s important to talk it through with someone you respect; have a chance to vent; and obtain feedback from this person. They can verify when you are indeed being bullied and when, perhaps, you’re being a little oversensitive.

If it seems that you may be reading more into it, or that it could be open to misinterpretation, can humor help you to diffuse the ambiguity and regain your composure? This is a good opportunity for you to review your own behavior. Are you performing acceptably and executing your job duties appropriately? Is it possible that your boss or colleague is exasperated with your underperformance or stressed due to your work ambivalence? Are you miserable and labelling your boss a “bully”?

Or is this a clear case of bullying?

  1. Verification

Document the offences in writing for a certain period of time (e.g. a week, a month, or a quarter), then discuss the matter with your supervisor and/or your Human Resources department. Have concrete examples of the bullying.

Learn the policies and protocols of your organization. Be aware of training programs, support services, and resources to help you. The greater your emotional intelligence—self awareness, interpersonal communication skills, and understanding of personality types—the greater your range of options. Different types of bullies require different strategies. For example, different strategies may be required for bosses, co-workers, direct reports, clients, customers, and contractors.

  1. Naming It

Speaking directly to the bully specifying their unacceptable behavior. Depending on the situation and the personalities involved, weigh up whether it is worth saying something directly, or whether that would be too risky and counterproductive. Unbelievable as it may sound, some bullies are not aware that they are being inappropriate (often because no one has ever told them) or how to communicate differently.

If you do decide to try to nip it in the bud, some people find it is helpful to rehearse the conversation or obtain some coaching first. Prepare your points (refer to no. 2 Verification) to discuss calmly.

Make specific statements about the behavior that you have noticed, the consequences, and what is expected in future communications. Ask, “What can we do to resolve this/improve things?”

  1. The Next Level Up

If the bullying still continues, then speak to their superior. Be aware of organizational communication protocols; if the bully is your boss, before you speak to their boss you might be required to advise them of your intention.

You will need to have specific details of the incidents recorded so you are absolutely correct. Remember that this is not about personal characteristics; this is about bully behavior and the likely organizational impact.

In your discussion, keep cool, calm, and collected. You need to mention what you have tried to do to resolve it, and have concerns about the impact this has on organizational effectiveness.

  1. Self Protection

You should expect to be safe from physical, emotional, and verbal abuse at work. Before, during, and after addressing the problem, ensure that you’re never alone with the bully—have colleagues around you in front of whom he or she will have to behave.

Restore and retain resilience. Humor can sometimes diffuse bullying. Does checking with that person’s colleagues add some ideas—any clues, additional support? Can you put on a “suit of mirrors” when visiting the bully? Does a song title or cartoon character come to mind?

Try to do things at work to keep things in perspective—whether it’s grabbing an afternoon break time with a co-worker, taking a walk at lunch (depending on where you are and traffic congestion on the road), or mentoring a junior colleague. Having things to look forward to will offset the drudgery of having to deal with the bully.

Should you stay or go? If your health, personal life, and capacity to perform your work is suffering, seriously consider your future. Multiple studies have found that working for a bad boss increases your chance of having high-blood pressure or a heart attack by as much as 50%.  Is the bully likely to leave? Can you transfer, job exchange, or remove yourself from the bully’s trajectory?

Don’t shrug off the pain, humiliation, and loss of job satisfaction that a bully can cause. If all else fails, look for another job. Your health and happiness are more important than “sticking it out.”

Laila St. Matthew-Daniel is a Transitional Life Coach, therapist, social activist and transformational strategist.




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