This morning I had the pleasure of attending an excellent ASTD ICE 2014 session presented by two of my colleagues, Bill Adams and Peter Ronayne, entitled “Keys to Surviving Toxic Leaders in Government.”  And although I am sure we each have our own government leaders on whom we would wish to bestow the title of “toxic,” this presentation was refreshingly not about politics.  In fact, toxic leadership is not something that is unique to government.  In fact, if you’ve been in the workplace a few years, you have probably encountered a toxic leader…and you’re not soon to forget the experience.

Toxic leaders aren’t just your everyday annoying co-workers. In his blog from last week, Bill Adams quoted former CCL president and CEO, Walt Ulmer, Jr. on the definition of a toxic leader as an “individual whose behavior appears driven by self-centered careerism at the expense of his/her subordinates and unit, and whose style is characterized by abusive and dictatorial behavior that promotes an unhealthy organizational climate.”

Does this sound like anybody you’ve had to work with or are working with right now?

I have personally encountered more than one toxic leader in my career, and one of them actually drove me to find another place of employment.  However, this may not always be an option, and we certainly can’t always let other people’s bad behavior control our own destiny.  Here are some of the ways that Bill and Peter recommend dealing with a toxic leader:

1. Self care first

Get plenty of sleep.  Exercise. Take time for you. The more physically healthy you become,  the more mental clarity you will have, and the better prepared you will be able to face negative situations and people.

2. Avoidance

Although we are taught to face our fears and look our problems in the eye, if you are dealing with a truly toxic leader, sometimes the best way to handle them is to lessen the time we have to spend with them.  If this is not an option, find a place during the day that you can go and revitalize yourself (refer back to point 1 above).

 3. Reframing

Peter mentioned one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” To this point, we can take steps to reframe our state of mind when we’re dealing with a toxic situation at work. One way is practicing “strategic indifference,” which is a short-term tactic of temporarily letting go of being fully engaged in a situation if it is getting too toxic. Then when you’re out of range of the toxic leader you can dial back in.  Another reframing exercise is at the end of each day, write down three things that went well during that day.  A bit of perspective can go a long way and take us out of being consumed by the toxic situation.

4. Confrontation

Confronting the toxic leader can be a risky choice and is not always the best idea. However, if you feel like this is the best course of action for your situation, begin by documenting the toxic behavior in writing. Then assemble a group of like-minded others and confront as a group, never alone.

What are some other ways you can think of to deal with a toxic leader? Please share your experiences and lessons learned.


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