I have worked for many different companies in many different industries. And over the course of my career I have probably had a couple of dozen different bosses.
When I think about those bosses a few of them were great, about half were good, and the other half were bad bosses. As anyone knows your direct manager is probably the leading determinant as to whether you are working in a good workplace or a toxic workplace.
It is true that anyone can find themselves suddenly working in a toxic workplace. Depending on the situation your response, whether it be fight or flight, is your best way to deal with that toxicity.
The Effects of a Toxic Workplace
Case 1 – Do You Want to Be a Manager or an Employee?
Early on in my career I had a boss who was outrageous in just about everything he did. He was quirky, unrealistically demanding, and out of touch. He acted less like a manager and more like the engineer he really wanted to be.
The result was that none of his employees or peers liked him. They talked about him behind his back. They didn’t put forth their best efforts. And ultimately every single one of them left either that department or they left the company entirely. Nobody wanted to stick around.
In fact one employee felt that the manager was so incompetent that he started taking bribes from suppliers, thinking that the manager would not be smart enough or attentive enough to catch him. (He did get caught by the way).
Case 2 – Micromanagement or Management by Objectives
Further along in my career, as I moved up the ladder, I was considering working for a more senior executive at the company. He was starting a new department as the company was looking to spin off on its own, and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of this change.
He had a reputation of being heavy handed, of being a micro manager, and also seemed to be widely disliked. But he was very intelligent. And the opportunity at hand was too good to pass up. So I took the job.
Before long some of his reputed behaviours began to appear. For my part I do not respond well to being micromanaged. In this case I confronted my new boss. We had a heart to heart conversation about what management style would work for us both to succeed and achieve what we wanted.
From that point on we had a very successful relationship and we achieved great things.
Case 3 – The Insulated Culture
I was asked to take over a factory operation that was not performing well. It had been recently acquired from a major, global OEM. As a part of the OEM the factory was operated as a cost centre, serving the single captive customer that it had, the OEM. As such the factory and its culture were highly insulated from the real world.
In acquiring the factory we need it to run as a profit centre. It had to serve multiple customers who were in fact not also the owners of the factory. They had to compete against aggressive companies and demonstrate to these customers that they could meet all their requirements. And by the way they had to turn a profit.
When I arrived at the factory it only took me a couple of days to figure out that the culture of the company had not changed from its OEM days. They didn’t take profit management seriously. They didn’t respond aggressively to customer demands. They were on the verge of being close down And they just didn’t get it.
Having observed all of these behaviours within a couple of weeks I gathered the entire management team in a meeting room. I stood at the front and on an easel I listed all of the bad behaviours that I had observed. I asked for inputs and I got a couple of additional items on the list.
With that I told the management team that all of that toxic workplace nonsense was going to stop! It was going to stop right then and there. I tore the sheet off the easel, crumpled it up, and threw it in the garbage can, right there in front of them.
Then I listed out the new behaviours we need to embrace if we were going to survive and succeed. We needed to model these positive behaviours and change the culture from top to bottom. We had to bleed out the toxicity and embed the positivity.
Before long employees and customers and management all started to see the changes. We got our deliveries and quality and customer satisfaction back on track. Employee morale started improving. And our financials were turning around as well.
Case 4 – The Revolving Management Team
I joined a new company which was going through an exciting business transformation. I had interviewed with the CEO and several other executives in the process. I also did my research on the company and the CEO. It was clear that the CEO was a tough leader as proven by the fact that the entire executive team seemed to revolve out of the company every 2-3 years.
But it was too great a company to pass up so I joined. When I started the CEO sang my praises to others. However very soon I started to see the CEO’s other side in meetings. The CEO would berate other executives both when they were in the room and when they weren’t in the room. In one case I saw the CEO tear an executive apart only to sing their praises a week later when that person left the company.
As one of my peers explained it to me, the “honeymoon” period would last 3 months. After that the CEO would attack anyone and everyone. It was only a matter of time when the spinning wheel would stop and you and you were then the CEO’s target practice for awhile. And that’s exactly what happened.
Why the CEO chose to act this way is beyond my comprehension. Publicly humiliating anyone was a daily event. It wasn’t motivating in any way. It just created a lot of anger and resentment. And that is why the entire executive team moved out of the company every 2-3 years.
In my case an even better and more exciting opportunity appeared before me. So I jumped on it. I was on the verge of leaving anyways but it was great to have something to leave and go to.
I kept in touch with people at that company and kept an eye on their public organization chart. Like clockwork, every 2-3 years ever since I left, the entire executive team turned over. The toxicity of this revolving management philosophy bewilders me to this day.
Case 5 – Ethics and Integrity Gone Out the Window
I joined another company as I knew the CEO, I had worked with him in the past, and we had achieved great things together. It was another exciting opportunity. There was a level of genuine trust that we had built which meant that there were no politics and no toxicity. It was a genuinely positive and constructive and motivating environment.
Over the course of the next few years we achieved many more great things. The company was on a very positive track. But the CEO and the Chairman clashed constantly and something had to give. So the CEO left. For my part I was not interested in that role so the Chairman brought in a new CEO.
In no time the new CEO brought in a consulting team, consulted with them behind closed doors for several months, and kept his executive team at a distance. He made no attempt to get to know his team, relied solely on the consultants, and then strange things started to happen.
He started to roll out initiatives to cut staff. Suddenly I would get an email listing all of the employees I had to cut. I did not create or input to this list. I responded with a list of my own. I was told in unambiguous terms to just do it.
Then the new CEO started doing even more questionable things like cutting employee benefits and severance agreements unilaterally and without notice. I don’t think much of it was even legal. Leaked emails and texts between the CEO and the consultant underscored their conspiratorial intentions towards his staff.
The unethical, and perhaps illegal, behaviour created a toxic workplace at its worst. I did my best to protect my employees. It was clear that the level of animosity and divide that the CEO created was intentional. For my part I could not work in an environment were there was no integrity and no ethics. I talked to the CEO about what was going on, how I was not going to be a party to it, and I left.
For his part the CEO was let go after a couple of years. The Chairman had seen enough as well.
If you want to turn your toxic workplace into a high performance organization there are steps you need to take. In some cases you will be in a position to make those changes whereas in far too many cases you are not in a position to change the culture.
As such you need to determine how you will respond. In several of the examples I have provided here your direct manager is often the source of the toxicity. If you can’t make changes in their behaviour or reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement, then you have two courses of action: fight or flight?
There is something to be learned from bad bosses and toxic work environments. Specifically you will learn what behaviours you do not want to propagate and condone.
There are far too many job opportunities available these days to work at a job and for a boss that you don’t like. Please don’t get me wrong. EVERY job has its problems. The grass is not always greener. There is a level of toxicity that comes with every job.
The trick is when to recognize that the toxicity is no longer tolerable.