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How to protect your team from a toxic manager

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

A friend came to talk to me because she was dealing with a difficult environment at her job. The company leader was lashing out at the employees, bashing projects, changing his mind constantly, and otherwise creating disruption and chaos instead of rallying the team.

My friend was dealing with all the negativity quite well, and creating healthy boundaries. But she was worried about the rest of the team. As a project lead, she had no direct management responsibilities over them, but she could see how the negativity, criticising and outbursts of the leader were affecting people and having negative repercussions on the projects under her charge.

In these type of situations, we may hesitate to step up, since we don’t have “official” leadership duties. And yet this is a great opportunity to practise leadership and team-building. The project under your charge may be at risk in such an environment, and it IS your responsibility to ensure it moves forward. In most cases, moving a project forward means ensuring the team responsible can work in the best possible environment.

So I told my friend about Julien. In one of my first work environments, we had a boss very much like the one described above. We were a young, inexperienced team, but we were lucky to have Julien among us. Julien was older, had many years of experience in the organization, and was one of the kindest persons I’ve ever met.

It usually went something like this: one of us youngsters had a difficult meeting with the boss. We would come out of the meeting very upset. The boss would leave in a rage. And Julien would be there to pick up the pieces.

He would first shift some books and produce a tiny bottle of liquor that he kept hidden. That alone would made us laugh a bit. He served us a sip and sat us down. He asked us, not about the confrontation with the boss, but about the underlying problem with the project that had led to it. And he provided advice and help to solve that underlying problem. He didn’t take sides or speak badly about our team leader. But he was always a great source of support and comfort.

Now, I’m not advocating that you keep a stash of liquor hidden in your office to share with your team after a storm (!), but the general outline of what Julien did for us is something we can all do for our teams, whether we are in a management position or not.

Let’s break it down:

Create a “shelter”.

After a storm breaks out at the office, many of us feel uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do, and just shift our gaze and hid our heads in our computers. But we can choose to act differently.  Make a pot of coffee, sit down with the person that seems upset, or gather the whole team for a short break. Ask people if they want to talk about it. Just hear them out.

If the problem is a chronic toxic environment, then creating a quiet space and moments where the team can gather regularly to regroup can be important. Can you create a cozy corner that is a go-to spot for recharging? Can you bring some plants, a cookie jar?  If you have your own office, can you turn your office into this safe shelter?

Avoid “taking sides”.

These safe moments for talking things out can quickly turn into “complaining-about-the-boss” space. That’s not productive for anyone. This is not about creating an “us-against-them” environment. You don’t need to take sides to help your team regroup. You can just say “I’m sorry that you’re going through this”, or “Yes, that meeting was hard”.

Move from problems to actions

Once you’ve let the person talk about the situation and how they feel, to avoid falling into the complaining trap, move the conversation along to finding solutions. Ask how you can help. Brainstorm how people can work together to solve the underlying issue. You can also discuss ways to create healthy boundaries, defuse tense situations or suggest ways to productively talk to the difficult leader.

NOTE: There is a difference between a negative and difficult boss and one that crosses the line into harassment. If you believe this line has been crossed, consider suggesting additional support, be it from HR or other leaders in the organization.

Help people understand the reality and their choices

In a chronic toxic environment, two things tend to happen. First, people keep hoping the boss will change his or her ways and become a better leader. This is rarely the case. Some leaders are open to feedback and are able and willing to implement some changes, but many won’t be interested.

Second, people become disempowered. All the negativity starts to seep in and we forget we have choices. We forget that we have skills that are valuable and will be of interest to many other organizations. That other type of leaders and positive working environments actually exist.

We can leave the department or the organization, find a new job, or decide -but actively so, to stay.

Help people analyze and face the real scenario and empower them to make an active choice. People may decide to stay because they care about the project, because they can’t afford to be jobless right now, or because they believe that difficult as it is, this challenge will grow them. Others may decide to test some strategies to improve working relations with the boss and stay for a set period of time to see if things improve. Yet others might choose to start looking elsewhere. Just the act of choosing will give people a sense of renewed control and motivation.

Unfortunately, there are some difficult bosses and toxic working environments out there. Hard as the experience may be, it can also provide an opportunity for you to step up your leadership skills, learn how to take care of the team and keep moving your projects forward even under challenging conditions.

Have you had a difficult boss? What have been your strategies to cope and to help your team to cope? Share your best tips in the comments or on FB!



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