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Toxic bosses: How to deal with them before they ruin your life

The world has been going through rapid change with increased globalization, changing technologies,  the rise of artificial intelligence and ‘gig’ employees. As we already are aware, the rate of change will only accelerate.

A major global study on the future of work from Gallup finds that the quality of managers is the single biggest factor in an organization’s long-term success.

According to Gallup, in their latest book, It’s the Manager, employees want coaches who inspire them, communicate with them and develop their strengths.

Gallup states: ‘Currently just 15% of employees worldwide are engaged at work, meaning they have great jobs in which they are developing with rich mission and purpose.’

If more leaders were able to inspire and maximize the potential of their employees, workplaces would be transformed.

Numerous studies show the main reason people leave their job is because they don’t like their boss. survey in 2017 by the Workplace Bullying Institute in America  found that:

  • 61 percent of Americans are aware of the bullying that takes place in their workplace
  • 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying
  • Bosses comprise 61 percent of bullies
  • 65 percent of bullied employees lost their original jobs when they tried to stop.

Unfortunately, there are many bosses in the workplace who behave badly. There is no doubt this leads to employee disengagement and high turnover of staff.

Andrew Fuller, renowned psychologist and author of Tricky People (How to deal with horrible types before they ruin your life) has consulted with thousands of workplaces and teams on dealing with what he calls tricky people.

In his book, he describes the following types of tricky people and gives good strategies to deal with them.

I recommend you read this book if you have tricky people in your life whether it be in the workplace or in your personal life!

Below is a brief summary of each tricky type as detailed in Tricky People.

The Back-Stabbers and White-Anters

These people can be charming to you but turn your back and you are fodder for them. They will exaggerate their achievements to the detriment of yours.

The most effective thing you can do when you have one of these tricky people as your boss is to try and develop a positive working relationship. It is important to be clear and firm and call them out in a respectful way if they have been saying damaging things about you.

Blamers and Whingers

Besides the fact these tricky people complain about everything and nothing is ever right, they are not willing to do anything about improving their situation.  They blame others for events that are beyond people’s control. They tend to live in the past.

Having a boss in one of these categories can be very destructive. The best thing you can do is understand them and how they behave.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller states it’s best to develop ‘strategic invincibility’. It is easy to take it personally when you are blamed for something. If you truly understand the blamer’s motives, it is easier to step away and just get on with your work.

Fuller suggests you document everything. Keep copies of emails and agreements.  For example, if you are asked to change your priorities by your blaming and whinging boss, ask for it in writing.

The Bullies and Tyrants

We have all come across this destructive group of tricky people. They can be power-hungry with no emotional intelligence. They can be verbally abusive and can use their physical presence to intimidate you. As Fuller states: ‘Bully bosses can create toxic workplaces.’

Being bullied by anyone is awful but having a bully boss is particularly bad. Bullies can be relentless and they take advantage of weakness, insecurities, and vulnerability.

Of course, the best way to deal with a bully is to stay away from them but if they are your boss, this is easier said than done.  They can make you anxious and very insecure and your work can significantly suffer. It is important here to keep records of any bullying incidents and follow the organization’s processes if you believe you are being bullied.

The Controllers

Controllers want to do things their own way. As bosses, they can micromanage and have an end justifies the means attitude. They are unable to see things from anyone’s perspective but their own. They can be very inflexible and rigid.

Fuller states: ‘If the controller is your manager, he will use a range of methods to exert influence, from quite subtle coaxing to blunt cajoling. Some controlling bosses are promoted beyond the level of their competence.  This can send their anxiety sky-rocketing and promote a tendency to micro manage.’

The High and Mighties

These tricky people expect others to recognize their brilliance and achievements. They have lots of self-confidence and look down on others.  However, underneath all their elitist ways, they are looking for your approval.

If your boss is a high and mighty your main job is to make them look good. As Fuller states: ‘if a high and mighty loses face someone else generally loses a job.’

The Avoiders

These people can be charming but are definitely skilled at not taking responsibility or accountability. If your boss is an avoider, it can be difficult to get direct instructions or feedback about your work. Fuller states: ’Some may divide and conquer staff by setting conflicting and ambiguous directions.  Others may manage by whim….’

The Competitors

These people think they can work their way through life using sheer will power.  They are generally people of action and not reflection. They have trouble with collaborating. They need to win constantly to bolster their ego.

Competitive managers can be very successful. According to Fuller if you have one as your boss, it could be favorable to your career as long as you show you are totally committed.

The Poor Communicators

These tricky people are the verbose people who drone on about themselves. They lack emotional intelligence and have poor social and empathy skills. A common technique of poor communicators is to spit the dummy when they are frustrated.

According to Fuller, ‘Some poor communicator bosses are loose cannons that explode without warning; others are so indirect, casual, chit chatting and vague that you end up not really having any idea at all what they want you to do.’

At the end of the day, it is all about how you relate to and deal with tricky bosses. Understanding their behaviours and motives can really help when you are in a challenging position of having a tricky boss. Understanding yourself and your sensitiveness can really help too in these situations.

Being in a situation like this with a tricky boss is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your reactions. It can help you grow as a person so that if a similar situation occurs in the future you are more prepared.

It is important leaders are held accountable and have expectations to perform at a higher standard as they are not only responsible for themselves but for those reporting to them.

Good bosses bring out the best in employees and facilitate a collaborative and supportive working environment.

Unfortunately, many toxic bosses exercise their power for their own personal goals. This misuse of power by a leader can lead to a toxic workplace culture where employees can experience anxiety and distress, and eventually becoming disengaged.

Many employees do not have the luxury of leaving the workplace if they have a toxic boss. They can feel isolated and very much alone.

It is important to get support within the workplace with trusted coworkers or mentors. More and more organizations have an Employment Assistance Program which is an excellent confidential resource for employees. It is also an employee’s right to follow a grievance procedure if they feel they are being adversely affected by the behaviour of a toxic boss.

Sunnie Giles, executive coach, organizational scientist and leadership development consultant completed an extensive study on what makes an effective leader.  See HBR article The Most Important Leadership Competencies According to Leaders Around the World.

Giles has listed the top competencies into 5 different themes. These are strong ethics and safety, self- organizing, efficient learning, nurtures growth, connection and belonging.

When leaders show a commitment to our growth, Giles states: ‘Employees are motivated to reciprocate, expressing their gratitude or loyalty by going the extra mile. While managing through fear generates stress, which impairs higher brain function, the quality of work is vastly different when we are compelled by appreciation. If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, support their training and promotion, and go to bat to sponsor their important projects.’

Finally, we can only hope that a greater awareness of workplace mental health issues and very importantly, the development of quality leaders who have a focus on a positive and transformative culture as well as maximizing the potential of employees will become the norm.

In the end, as we have always known, it is the people who make any organization successful.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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