How to De-Fang a Toxic Boss

Richard S. Gallagher

How many people out there hate their bosses? And how many have the luxury of simply voting with their feet and leaving? Everyone faces a toxic boss at some point in their career and must quickly learn how to de-fang.

Toxic bosses are often energy vampires who drain our morale, creativity and productivity at the very things they are supposed to manage. Ironically, they often feel they are doing the right thing in the process. So when you react to them, you get dragged into a tug-of-war that too often leads to a one-way ticket out the door. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

At the same time, the right communications skills can provide a great antidote to these toxic bosses. Here's how:

1. Learn how your boss sees the world.

Does your boss go to bed every night dreaming of new ways to be mean and cruel? (If he does, it's time to leave.) The reality is that most toxic bosses simply have a warped view of managing people. What you see as criticism, they see as "holding people accountable." What you see as politics, they see as "motivating people to perform." And what you think is pointless nastiness is, in their mind, "avoiding a country-club atmosphere where people slack off."

So how do you learn what's behind their snarkiness? Simple: You ask them. Here are some examples of questions you might use:

  • "What would the ideal department look like for you?"
  • "What kinds of things frustrate you about our team?"
  • "What would be the single biggest thing I could do better this year?"

2. Validate the boss's view of the world.

This part feels like sucking on a lemon for most people, but it is the key to changing your boss's toxic behavior. (When was the last time you responded positively to criticism?) Here you are not out to agree with your boss or "kiss up" to her -- your goal is to make it clear you understand her, so that she will then listen to you. Try these on for size:

Tillie Toxic:"I wish people would stop slacking off and get to work around here."

You: "Good point, it is frustrating when people don't perform like you wish they did."

Peter Picky:"You never do this task right."

You:"I don't want you to settle for less than the best. Let's discuss this."

Does it feel funny to say things like these to a boss who acts like Darth Vader? Of course it does. But when you say them, you accomplish something extremely valuable: You create a safe space to start talking about changing the boss's intimidating ways.

3. Offer an alternative.

Here is where you close in for the kill. Offer your boss what he wants, while presenting him with a neutral, factual way to get there -- by treating you better! Here's one example:

"I want to give you everything you want in the future. At the same time, I find it difficult to do that when I am constantly criticized. It makes it harder for me to do my best. Where could we go from here?"

Now you are in productive dialogue, and can start negotiating a win-win solution as adults. Remember that you have to use facts and not feelings here. Telling your boss to "share performance expectations" or "talk to me first before you criticize my work" is OK, but asking him to "stop being a jerk" is provocative, not to mention unclear.

With the right words, you can often achieve what seems impossible: Get your toxic boss to change, using a painless conversation that never puts him or her on the defensive. In the process, you will gain interpersonal and leadership skills that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

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Richard S. Gallagher is a nationally-known expert on how to communicate in difficult situations and the author of "How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work" (AMACOM 2009).

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