Working for a disorganized or disengaged boss can be frustrating, but dealing with a toxic leader can be downright awful.
If you’re waking up each day bracing yourself for the inevitable crisis du jour, it may be time to reassess.
Here are three signs of a toxic leader and how you can keep them from dragging you down.
1. They ghost you (except when they need you)
Your 1-1? That needs to get pushed back. The report your boss is behind on? That’s top priority. This happens occasionally, with good reason, but for a toxic leader, delaying the needs of the people on their team is the norm.
This happens because a toxic leader’s default orientation is to themselves, not to the organization or more the people who work for them. It’s dangerous and not uncommon if your boss is very ambitious.
What to do: Formalize a specific request for support. The more you can craft a clear “ask” of your boss, the more likely you will get the support you need. Everyone (individual contributors and bosses alike) works best with clear expectations. Write up exactly what you need in terms of time, guidance, or resources. Set up a designated time to talk about it.
And if it’s a repeated problem, call it out. Express, honestly and respectfully, that you would like to feel more supported. In many circumstances, the leader hasn’t even noticed the pattern of behavior, much less considered how it may hurt your feelings.
2. They gossip
♦ This leader is the first to tell you about a rumored affair, they freely divulge the details of a confidential meeting, and they’re quick to develop “theories” about why so and so reallyquit.
At first, this doesn’t read “toxic.” It often feels great that your boss would choose you to confide in. Be careful. Someone who is spewing gossip to you is likely spewing it to others.
What to do: Stop acting interested, even if you are interested. You’re going to have to be the more mature one here and quickly change the subject.
If your leader is prone to gossip, tread carefully when you bring up other people. Stick to the facts and don’t make verbal assumptions about other’s opinions or motivations.
3. They constantly change their expectations
It’s like being halfway down the field with a football and then your coach throws you a paintbrush. It can be maddening to a high performer, especially if you’ve invested a lot of your time learning how to play football.
Look, I get it, unprecedented is the word of the year. Organizations are having to adapt in record time. Expectations will change more this year than they have previously, but they shouldn’t change without reason.
A toxic leader doesn’t change their expectations because the circumstances have changed; they change their expectations because their mind has changed. And most of the time, their mind changes because they didn’t fully think through what they were saying in the first place.
What to do: Confirm expectations — multiple times — in writing.
If you get something out of left field, a request that butts up against previous expectations, refer back to those expectations, confirm that they have indeed changed, and ask why.
This approach will often, over time, help a leader who struggles with giving clear expectations. When they know their team is listening and will bring up what was previously said, they’re more likely to think before they speak.
Toxic leaders will make appearances throughout your career. Yet to quote Tony Gaskins, “You teach people how to treat you.”
If you’re a leader reading this, and you’re getting a little bit uncomfortable, breathe. Every exceptional leader has done all of the things on this list multiple times. We’re all human. Recognizing destructive habits is the first step to changing them.