How to Cope with Toxic Leadership 

Woman with elbows on table looking at man as if she is irritated with him; man seems to be trying to emphasize something that she does not care about or agree with.You will find toxic leaders, managers, and supervisors practically everywhere.

Toxic leadership damages people and organizations. If you work for a bad boss or deal with a toxic leader, your life is no picnic. Toxic leadership takes its toll on people whether it occurs in the production room of a small factory, the athletic department of a major university or even a place of worship. Toxic leaders, managers, or supervisors can make your life difficult and rob the joy from your work - and they are bad for business.

Nonetheless, you will find them practically everywhere. This article examines the effects of toxic leadership on people, and proposes techniques for dealing with a toxic leader, whether he or she may be a boss, teacher, coach or peer, or an elected leader.

A True Account

Some years ago, I remember watching a certain basketball coach and his team play on national television. The coach had an angry, insulting and tyrannical leadership style, which adversely impacted the performance of his players. He would bench his players immediately when they made the slightest mistake, then berate them as they came to the bench, as if public humiliations would have a desirable impact upon performance.

In reality, he was the poster child for toxic leadership. The coach's  anger and intolerance had a derogatory affect on the confidence level of his athletes and team morale. Yes, they won quite a few games, but it was not because of the coach's style. Many fans joked it was in spite of his style.

As I watched this toxic leader's teams perform in a tense, unforgiving atmosphere, and studied the coach's strained interactions with his players, I thought of other toxic leaders I had known and how they all had common traits. In business, they can ruin the office culture and make people feel miserable, adding to their overall stress level.

As a business consultant, I have observed how chronic unhappiness and despair hampers the work of employees who work in a toxic leadership situation, and how it acts as an impediment to the growth of the organization. And, I've labored under the strain of working for more than one toxic leader myself . . . and I can well remember the pain it caused in my personal life. 

Traits of Great Leaders

One lone black pawn a foot away from a group of red pawns.Great leaders stay positive, never allowing setbacks or problems to drive them into fits of rage or to passively aggressively take it out on the employees

On the other hand, great leaders create a positive atmosphere in which people can excel, practice emotional control, and think before they react by modelling these essential qualities. They inspire people rather than degrade them. As a result, people respond in the affirmative, reaching for higher goals and making greater achievements than what would be possible in a negative, fear-based system.

Such leaders stay positive and well-focused, never allowing setbacks or problems to drive them into fits of rage. Effective leaders lead by example, displaying organized caring and setting a healthy tone for the organization, whereas toxic leadership styles are akin to driving a car with one foot on the gas pedal and one on the brake.

To continue the basketball analogy, the great basketball coach, John Wooden, was an effective leader, on and off the court. He knew how to get others to reach high standards by having fun and creating enthusiasm, and by treating others respectfully. He was a consummate teacher, not dictator. He had an eye for talent and cultivated the hidden potential in his players. 

Toxic Leadership and Relationships

Mr. Wooden understood that relationships were not only important, but the building blocks to success. He took good care of his relationships with players, fellow coaches, administrators, alumni and everyone. Effective and trusted relationships are the hallmark of good management. 

Wooden didn't over-react to players' mistakes or cry like a baby on the sidelines when something went wrong. Leadership involves being part of the solution, not the problem, and not adding to the burden of others. It requires an emphasis on answers and solutions, not mistakes and problems. 

Relationships can be quite challenging, but they are worth fighting for. You can find cutting-edge strategies for improving your relationships and overcoming various kinds of relationship problems in Relationship Gold, our most popular eBook. I wanted to create a helpful relationship guide based on clinical strategies I've used successfully in my decades of experience in the consulting room, working with all kinds of relationship issues, including the most difficult marital problems. 

Keys to Surviving Toxic Leadership

Image of man shot from the nose down who seems to be yelling/talking loudly with his hands extended out toward his computer.Keep your wits about you. Understand without judging. Exercise tolerance and lead through positive action.

1. Keep your wits about you. Instead of letting yourself get ensnared in a tangled web of frustration and hopelessness, stay calm and think constructive thoughts.

2. Observe the toxic leader's style and try to put yourself in his or her shoes. What can you learn about him/her that you can use to better understand and tolerate the leader's shortcomings?

3. Think of how you may be able to exert a POSITIVE influence on the leader. How could you set a helpful example, staying calm and professional? Could you impart a sense of calm stability to your leader, even when under pressure, minimizing the effects of toxic leadership on the organization?

4. Avoid getting so angry that you criticize or condemn the leader. You will only be making things worse. Rather than complaining, spend your time thinking strategically. There may be an angle you haven't thought of yet.

5. Focus on the good. All leaders have their pluses, including toxic leaders. Yet people rarely focus on the pluses of someone who is making their lives miserable.

Detach yourself long enough to think about the good aspects of the leader's behavior. Don't allow yourself to concentrate on the negative. You will only feel worse.

6. Brainstorm ways you may be able to help the leader feel less anxious or insecure. What could be changed or accomplished within your sphere of influence to help the toxic leader feel more secure? What could you or others do to facilitate such an improvement or provide greater support?

7. Strong emotion will only blind you, so think with your head, not your fears. Detach yourself from negative emotional states and put on your thinking cap, have fun thinking outside the box, challenge yourself to construct new ways of perceiving the situation and of marshaling new resources for help in solving problem, and go where you haven't gone before.

8. Stay strong and remain positive no matter how toxic someone's leadership may feel; you always have a choice to make. You can crumble under pressure or persist until you find a way to tolerate or improve the situation. Start small. If you can make one or two small changes in the situation, or your own response, you will be more likely to succeed in keeping yourself strong.

9. Do your part to lead others in a quiet, humble way. Lead the right way, regardless of the toxic leadership styles of those around you. This way you will not contribute to the mayhem nor make the office culture more dysfunctional than it already is!

10. Exercise tolerance. Remember everyone is on a path of growth and development, and no one is perfect.

Re-frame the Experience

It helps to ask yourself what you can learn from this experience you are undergoing, as opposed to assuming that you shouldn't be there and this shouldn't be happening to you. "Shouldistic thinking" will only get you into trouble. Rather, ask yourself if there could be a lesson in it for you.

What can you possibly learn from this experience? What skills can you gain which may be of help to you in future challenges? How can you re-frame it so it doesn't seem so bleak, and you can focus on hidden opportunities for personal growth?

The strong leaders in any group take care of their relationships, keeping lines for communicating open and serving others. Yes, serving others. That's what leadership is all about. Care about people in genuine and honest ways, and they will follow you just about anywhere!

Provide Excellent Self-Care 

When faced with the task of working for a toxic leader or organization, it is of critical importance to take good care of yourself, physically and emotionally. Many employees need counseling or some type of structured support, to help them to stay strong and remain on the job. I've counseled many overwhelmed employees, and the experience has taught me that the employees need to have a safe place to vent their frustrations. Keeping strong feelings bottled up inside will only spell trouble. 

Toxic Leadership: In Sum

When faced with an uncomfortable leadership situation, it is wise to avoid hitting the panic button. Try and figure a way to overcome. Give it time and don't quit. 

What you learn in the process can set you up for success in many future positions. Plus, you will grow in wisdom and skill, by increasing your comfort zone with adversity. You will become more valuable to yourself and others by learning how to negotiate tough situations, without allowing anyone to compromise your own mental attitude and/or damage your leadership efforts.

Surviving a toxic leader's influence while remaining a strong leader yourself, is a never ending task. Wherever you find a vacuum of leadership, step up to the plate and provide the real thing. Not by opposing others but by showing them a different way. Remember to take care of yourself and stay positive.