Coping with Toxic Leaders: Some Research-Based Guidance.

July 27, 2022

Alex Firmin

CEO of Promethean Executive

Recent studies have shown that working for a toxic boss not only affects professional and occupational fulfilment, it can have wide ranging effects on your mental health and wellbeing.  If you have worked for a toxic leader, you will know how it can undermine your confidence, cause anxiety and distress, and if unaddressed, can lead to long term effects such as clinical depression.  This article examines what toxic leadership is, and proposes some actions to take for organisations and individuals to effectively tackle toxic behaviour.

What is toxic leadership?
Toxic leadership is an increasingly commonly used term to describe leaders who engage consistent negative behaviours that, if systematic and repeated, cause psychological harm for their followers.  Toxic behaviours include, but are not limited to, intimidating, bullying, manipulating, micromanaging, arrogance, and engaging in abusive or unethical behaviour.  Toxic leaders may be narcissists or even sociopaths; people with no conscience who see their employees only as tools to be used to achieve their selfish objectives.   For affected followers, toxic leadership behaviours are associated with psychological distress (i.e. stress, anxiety and depression), emotional harm (i.e. emotional exhaustion, fear and social isolation) and physical health problems, including increased sickness, eczema, and even the loss of hair.

Coping strategies
Yagil et al. identified that followers of toxic or abusive leaders tend to take one of five coping strategies.  The quotes below are taken from real interviewees:

Ingratiation: ‘I just worked harder, longer, and tried to please’

Direct communication: ‘I stood my ground and defended myself when confronted’

Avoidance of contact: “The section in which I worked tended to work around the person, forming our own informal work groups to solve problems and make the work happen”

Support seeking: “I found one other colleague, with whom I could debrief and that made things more bearable.”

Reframing: “I have focused on what I can get out of a bad employment situation”

This study suggested that as employees experienced high levels of abuse, they tended to disengage with the leader and use avoidance tactics such as intentionally double booking to avoid meetings.  Many of these tactics make the problem worse, and only a few respondents reported using problem-solving coping responses, such as logically confronting the issue, which produced the best outcomes.

The study concluded that most followers do not have solutions on how to cope effectively with abusive supervision, and followers’ reliance on support seeking or avoidance strategies appeared to prevent them utilizing problem-focused coping strategies.   Emotion-focused coping or avoidance responses may be considered dysfunctional, but research shows they are common reactions when an individual feels powerless to prevent ongoing abuse.

Some actions to take
We have found that when an individual feels they are in an uncontrollable situation, they are likely to revert to avoidance-focused coping strategies, such as taking leave and eventually leaving the organisation.  This is understandable as not all organisations are well equipped to deal with toxic leadership.  We have found this to be a particular issue in owner-managed businesses, where the ‘leader’ isn’t accountable to any disciplinary process or person.  In these instances, the inevitable high turnover of staff and increasingly poor reputation as an employer, may force change or lead to closure of the organisation.

For organisations:
The majority of organisations are engaged in dealing with toxic leadership, and toxic culture.  It is recommended that organisations consider:

  • Proactive organizational training programs focusing on effective coping strategies to deal with toxic behaviours
  • Training and support to equip employees with the courage and resilience to address toxic leadership behaviours rationally, using an evidence-based approach
  • Advice on the social and professional support is made clearly available to employees
  • An emphasis on the importance of taking responsibility for maintaining personal health and well-being will equip employees with the knowledge and skills needed to prevent them from coming to harm, or to deflect harm when it first occurs
  • Examine closely how success, and successful leadership, is measured. A focus on the achievement of short-term objectives could be driving toxic behaviour.

For the employee affected:

  • Problem solving strategies, such as standing your ground, taking an evidence based and calm rational approach, tend to provide the best results.
  • Engage with the formal support structures, rather than just informal social support. It may be worth persevering, and it is highly unlikely you are alone in feeling out of control and stressed by the leader’s behaviour.
  • Maintain a journal so that you can present clear, evidence-based points and examples. This reflective process may help you to think more clearly about how to address the problem.
  • As a last resort you may need to leave the organisation. This is better than allowing your long term mental and physical health to be affected.

Yagil, D., Ben-Zur, H., & Tamir, I. (2011). Do employees cope effectively with abusive supervision at work? An exploratory study. International Journal of Stress Management, 18(1), 5–23.

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