April 24, 2024


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5 Signs You’ve Reached Toxic Boss Status And How To Make Changes

5 min read
5 Signs You’ve Reached Toxic Boss Status And How To Make Changes

Employees don’t leave organizations; they leave toxic situations. According to research, workplace safety, mental health and well-being declined in 2023 and continue to plummet in 2024. Studies show that confidence in front-line leadership has taken a nosedive as toxic treatment of employees has worsened. A report from DDI’s Frontline Leader Project identifies a common theme of anxiety—felt both by frontline leaders and the people around them. This lack of confidence is critical because frontline leaders are responsible for more than 80% of an organization’s workforce and directly responsible for executing an organization’s strategy. Employees can’t fire their bosses, but they can take steps to manage bad boss energy, detailed here. A large body of data shows that it’s toxic frontline leaders and toxic organizational cultures that must clean up their acts.

Bribery, Bullying, Backflips And BS In Toxic Workplaces

Toxic workplace cultures—where employees dread going to work, don’t feel they can be honest with their manager and may witness or experience sexual harassment or age discrimination—hurt both workers and company profits, according to a SHRM study. Their research concluded that bad bosses cost companies $223 billion dollars in turnover between 2014 and 2019. SHRM data also shows that 20% have reported poor treatment in the workplace by coworkers or peers due to their political views.

And that’s not all. In a piece on LinkedIn, writer Karen Ferris describes the systemic trajectory of organizational toxicity as “Bribery, Bullying, Backflips and BS.” Ferris asserts that executives first tried bribery before bullying to get workers back in the office—offering free food and perks, even a $99 per night for an on-campus hotel, saying, “Just imagine no commute to the office in the morning and instead, you could have an extra hour of sleep and less friction.” She goes on to say that other companies are bullying employees to return to the office by threatening them with job losses or pay cuts. Then executives did backflips, agreeing that employees could work from anywhere, and after workers made significant lifestyle changes, they reversed their decisions. The BS happened, Ferris insists, when organizations made flimsy excuses, offering as an example Amazon’s
explanation: “It’s easier to learn, model, practice and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues.”

5 Warning Signs You Have Achieved ‘Toxic Boss’ Status

The DDI’s Frontline Leader Project data showed that 57% of employees have left at least one job because of a bad boss. Yet, many toxic bosses are not aware they have achieved that status because employees are afraid to give feedback, and managers often don’t seek it. Instead of encouraging advice, asking for input or showing humility, toxic bosses are notorious for ruling with an iron fist, using intimidation as a defense against their own insecurities or unwittingly undermining subordinates to reinforce their own, more powerful position. They micromanage and pressure employees to match their own inhuman standards of long hours and frantic pace.

Many organizations and leaders have lost sight of what matters most to employees. It’s important for leaders to self-reflect on their own influence over each employee’s career path. Although no one wants to wear the label “toxic boss,” if you’re not proactively asking yourself how your actions and attitudes could be driving employees to leave, you risk inadvertently becoming one. I spoke with Tacy Byham, CEO of DDI by email, and she identified five warning signs that you might be the reason employees are leaving, along with how to fix the problem before you reach “toxic boss” status.

  1. You fail to see your employees as whole people. Dr. Byham suggests asking yourself if you encourage your team to focus on the task at hand and leave their personal worries behind. The reality is that every person has a set of personal and practical needs, she points out, which include the feelings and challenges they are experiencing in other areas of their lives. “Rather than demand that employees try to compartmentalize their lives, help your team members see the connections between their work and life and practice empathy to understand your team’s needs holistically,” she advises. “To build trust as a leader, you also must be willing to show your humanity by displaying vulnerability and being transparent about the pressures in your life—whether it’s caring for a sick child or an aging parent.”
  2. You give vague or damaging feedback or no feedback at all. “Every time you interact with someone as a leader, you have the power to impact how they feel about themselves,” Byham asserts, “and with that power comes great responsibility to either maintain or enhance their self-esteem. She states that when you give feedback focused on the person (such as “you’re not a warm person”) or assign someone a label (like “uncooperative”), you risk permanently damaging their self-esteem and alienating them from the organization. When delivering feedback, she recommends it’s best to focus on the facts and ask questions to clarify the person’s motives before making assumptions.
  3. You’re solving too many of your team’s problems. According to Byham, many leaders spend the bulk of their time telling rather than seeking solutions—when really that ratio should be flipped. “While you may have the best intentions, always giving your team the answers makes them feel disengaged and hinders their development of critical thinking skills,” she stresses. “Make asking for help and encouraging involvement your first choice by responding with open-ended questions like, ‘What ideas do you have?’”
  4. You micromanage because you don’t trust your team. Byham acknowledges that remote work requires more trust from leaders since you can’t physically see what your team is working on. But she adds that constantly pinging your team members for status checks and expecting them to always be online and responsive creates unrealistic pressure that leads to burnout. “Trust is a two-way street, and for your team to trust you, you need to give them meaningful work and the autonomy to execute it,” she explains. “Ownership is critical to employee engagement, so you should provide support without diminishing a team member’s responsibility.”
  5. You waste your team’s time on unproductive meetings. Endless meetings are a constant drain, and 70% of them crush productivity and prevent employees from focusing on their tasks. Byham insists that a single, one-hour meeting can make or break your mutual respect with everyone attending. She suggests that you choose your meetings wisely. “Calling a meeting without being entirely sure of its purpose sends the message you don’t value your team’s time,” she concludes, adding, “Instead, use meetings as an opportunity to draw out ideas or foster involvement from your team.”


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