toxic boss

7 tips to avoid being a toxic boss

Last week I wrote a post “5 ways to avoid a toxic workplace culture.” This took a macro view of workplace culture. I have been asked by many readers to give practical tips to avoid being or becoming a toxic boss.

There is an old adage that says people leave bosses not organisations so all managers are responsible to some degree for employee engagement. But it can be easy for a leader to slip into becoming a toxic boss under pressure from an unrelenting  corporate world especially if no training is given. It is the seemingly unimportant, imperceptible daily actions which can have the greatest impact on employee engagement.

Dealing with adversity and ambiguity

External factors such as sector, financial or senior leadership crises occur, but it is how the boss responds in these circumstances that counts. I have worked with countless individuals who have been laid off and even when they are firing people,  they still respect good bosses. Without exception the best leaders are the ones that can sustain employee engagement despite ambiguity and adversity, even when they are making redundancies.

Many very well known and established businesses have pockets where individual bosses do not know how to manage their teams and create a toxic atmosphere. On an every-day level it’s the first line supervisor who has the greatest impact on employee motivation and commitment. Lack of employee engagement has a significant impact on the bottom line and with 81% of employees reported to be potentially open for a move and the cost in terms of innovation, customer service, creativity, mental well-being and overall productivity is high.

The toxic boss

Individual managers are rarely held accountable for employee engagement unless there is a crisis in their department or division. If the manager is responsible for generating revenue the fact that his/her employees show signs of demotivation is frequently overlooked. This also applies to more serious cases of sexism, harassment, bullying and unethical practises. Sometimes leaders and shareholders just want results with no questions asked. They are less concerned with the how until there are issues. A high percentage of the career transition coaching I do is rooted in poor leadership and lack of employee engagement, although they may not be the visible presenting issues. All of these negatively impact any employer brand.

Greatest asset

Business success might have nothing to do with a great corporate culture but about market conditions. The real test is what happens when business is challenging.  It is the same leaders who say that their employees are their greatest asset, but their behaviour is not consistent with their so-called mission or values statement.

Highly engaged and motivated employees should be any organisations greatest assets. But very often they get the least attention. At one time the people part of the business was even designated “human capital” which sounds more like “human cattle.”

Old school managerial style

There are many managers in post who subscribe to what would be considered a more old school style of management. This is a “command and control” approach rather than influence and persuade. It’s not necessarily always older generations who subscribe to this philosophy either. As millennials dominate the workforce they are looking for a more inclusive leadership style which is about transparency, flexibility and influence. Good barometers are not just in your employee engagement survey but comments placed on social proofing sites when people have left. These are frequently dismissed as the rantings of disgruntled ex-employees, but  if there is a consistent theme then it’s worth paying attention to the message.

Many pundits also dismiss the exit interview. These can add value if done correctly and there is transparency. Many employees are reluctant to be open for fear of reprisals and poor references looping back to the point about transparency. If fear replaces respect then any manager is in trouble.

7 tips to avoid being a toxic boss

Many managers have no idea that they have moved into the toxic zone where they are alienating their employees and not engaging them. In tri-partite discussions there are some who take a hard-line “this is how I am .. get over it” but others are genuinely shocked, upset even and open to change. Here are some simple every day  tips to bring that change about.

  1. Walk the talk – all leaders should embody their message and do as they want others to do. This means engaging regularly with your team and not sitting in an ivory tower sending out directional emails. You need to be out there seeing what goes on and being visible.
  2. Exhibit empathy – this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything your employees say or do, but if they have a problem or a concern try to walk in their shoes and experience a situation from their point of view. It’s also about respecting their boundaries in terms of time and communication.
  3. Listen and be inquisitive – the most motivating bosses are the ones that listen and communicate openly and transparently. If a topic is not for discussion for any reason you can say that and let them know that as soon as you can you will involve them. Find out what is going on for them. Be up front that you may not always be able to act on what they want but you will always be willing to listen. Understanding your employees and being open with them is key to motivation. They won’t be open with you if you are closed with them.
  4. Be ethical – conduct yourself with integrity and with the values you subscribe to. Don’t play favourites and always be neutral and just. In an era where there seems to be a pronounced absence of leadership values it’s important to align yourself with values that employees trust and respect.
  5. Give responsibilities – empowerment and accountability are great motivators. Make sure your team have the proper skills and tools to do their jobs properly. Give credit, thanks and recognition when it is due and support them all the way even if the team comes under scrutiny.  All of these practises lead to increase confidence which benefits the employer and enhances the employer brand. This is the time when there is an I in team. Above all do not micro-manage. This is a consistent reported characteristic of a toxic boss and one of the single most damaging management flaws. It implies lack of trust, and is stifling and demotivating.
  6. Develop their careers – offer training and personal development opportunities. Sponsor and mentor as appropriate. Promote them where possible and give constructive feedback when their career goals are not being met. If promotion isn’t realistically feasible maintain their personal development and learning. Long serving solid employees offer as much value as the whizz kid hot shot.
  7. Create a team charter – one of the simplest ways of empowering any team is to agree guidelines on the things that are important to them, communicating goals and agreeing norms and values. This could be about communication style, the way meetings are run, dress code or protocols for the resolution of disagreements and conflict. An inclusive management style will have an immediate impact on employee engagement.

A strong highly motivated team will be more creative, productive and committed to the organisational mission. Make sure that you are on the right side of the line to avoid being a toxic boss.

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