Do you work for a dean, provost, president, or department chair who belittles you regularly? Or someone who seems to enjoy criticizing you and brings up your past mistakes? Perhaps your leader is someone who believes they are destined for greatness and refuses to admit they have faults. Or do you report to a leader who has explosive outbursts and unpredictable moods? Maybe none of these apply and the person you work for is simply trying to solve problems with other departments and has asked you to help “bring them down.”
If any of these descriptions seems familiar, you may be working for a toxic leader. Toxic leaders are leaders who through a range of counterproductive to destructive behaviors leave organizations and followers worse than when they found them (Lipman-Blumen, 2005).
In today’s global society, toxic leaders are entirely too common. Admittedly, I have no way to officially quantify the percentage of leaders who are toxic or the number of individuals who report to toxic leaders. But most people I have met when researching and discussing toxic leadership have shared that they reported to or are reporting to a toxic leader. Despite the high frequency of toxic leaders, we rarely discuss them, how they affect us, or how to respond to them.
If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, the six strategies listed below may help you survive.
In some cases, a leader may be unaware that their actions harm others or are inappropriate (Lipman-Blumen, 2005). Thus, I believe in giving them (and everyone) the benefit of the doubt in the beginning. In these instances, discuss your feelings with your leader and provide specific examples of their actions and the feelings they caused. If they seem genuinely receptive, provide them with some leadership resources (books, articles, videos, etc.). If they are not receptive, at least you know you tried and can move on to another approach. (I have found that I always feel better with other actions if I have attempted to address this problem directly first.)
Reporting to a toxic leader is hard and finding individuals who can support you through this experience is important. Talk with your family, friends, or mentors about what you are going through, and lean on them for guidance. The best support, however, can be found in colleagues who are experiencing the same toxic leader. Identifying an authentic collegial support system can help you feel less alone and confused. These colleagues are perfect for swapping stories, coping, and strategizing ways to address the situation or leader.
Followers of extremely toxic leaders often forget they have power. Often, they go to work and hear how little power they have from their leaders; thus, the followers start believing nothing can be done about their situation. This is rarely the case (Padilla, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2007). If you are in this situation, you can use your voice to elevate your concerns to your leader’s manager, your president, human resources, your board, your accrediting agency, or other third parties. Remind yourself of your options, and use them when they feel right. Remember: when a toxic leader is exposed, we often ask why no one said anything before.
Know that you are dealing with a toxic leader who probably does not recognize or respect boundaries. With this in mind, if you establish rules, you will more than likely end up in uncomfortable and bothersome situations. Spend time identifying your boundaries and then stick to them. If one of your boundaries is that you are unwilling to work on weekends, make sure you do not answer emails on weekends and refuse to make exceptions to this rule for something critical. Likewise, if one of your boundaries is avoiding conversations that put down others, excuse yourself from those conversations when they start or change the subject. You have more control than you think, and it all starts with setting your boundaries and not budging on them then sticking to them—no matter what.
Much like creating boundaries, you can protect your integrity by knowing your limits and values. In other words, you do not have to stoop to your leader’s level. When your leader is angry, you can be calm. When they are disrespectful, you can be kind. While behaving this way is sometimes hard in the moment, it helps you feel better when you look at yourself in the mirror and ask whether you like what you see (trust me on this one).
The kindness mentioned above should apply not only to others but also to you. Acknowledge that you are in a difficult situation, and allow yourself to feel hurt, disappointed, and confused. Give yourself time to process these feelings, and do not discount them because “it’s just work.” Work, our work lives, and our work relationships are important to us and matter. So treat the situation as if you were going through a difficult time with a friend or family member and do what helps you feel better. That may be meditating, working out, reading, traveling, spending time with loved ones, or finding a new position. Whatever it is, make sure to take care of yourself.
These are just six possible ways to respond to toxic leaders. Hopefully at least one approach here can assist you. It is also important to know that you are not alone, others have gone through this and survived, and you should handle the situation in whatever way that feels best for you. Much like protecting your character, you must decide what you’re willing to live with as you approach this situation.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Padilla, A., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 176–194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.03.001
Stephanie Hinshaw is the senior vice president of academic affairs at American College of Education. She is also a doctoral candidate at Creighton University; her dissertation research centers on the impacts of toxic leaders on their followers.