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Let me start with the bottom line. Toxic bosses never bring out the best in people. They are bosses who exhibit the kind of behavior that proves detrimental to an employee personally, to their performance, and to the culture of an organization. In essence, they are nothing more than workplace bullies who use their perceived power to control others.
As much as we’d like to think that the workplace has opened its eyes to the importance of having employee engagement and a positive corporate culture, the truth remains—toxic bosses are still out there. In fact, I started to write a book titled, "I had a good boss, once" based on how frequently I would hear from supervisors and managers of their limited exposure to the one boss who understood positive reinforcement. The most succinct way to describe a toxic boss is that they are all about "me" in word and in deed. Their verbal behavior is populated with personal pronouns—I, me, and mine. In their actions, they take credit for the work of others while at the same time belittling others’ accomplishments. Even though they often satisfy their own bosses by hitting their targets, they almost always leave performance on the table because they don’t get discretionary effort from their direct reports.
If you Google "toxic bosses" you will discover a long list of unflattering adjectives characteristic of what might be called a mean or disagreeable person. The sad fact is that these people don't see themselves as such primarily because they please their bosses and rarely show their "mean side" in the presence of their own boss. Because they intimidate direct reports and peers, it is not infrequent that peers and subordinates unwittingly support the negative behaviors to avoid an unpleasant interaction or to escape the situation altogether.
Back to the bottom line. Organizations should be vigilant about finding toxic managers. Once identified, every effort should be made to help them change their behavior. Take heed—it will likely be difficult because of their long history of receiving positive reinforcement for the toxic behaviors. Those who understand human behavior know that the current contingencies of reinforcement maintain those behaviors and when the contingencies change the behavior will change. Unfortunately, if they are inadvertently reinforced for their toxic behavior, it will be almost impossible for them to change and it may be time to send them on their way.
Follow these recommendations and your organization will have a fighting chance at overcoming toxic bosses and workplace bullies:
By taking these steps, organizations will be closer to the day when more people will say, "I had a bad boss, once." The 3rd edition of Bringing Out the Best in People is now available. Learn more about the science and how to use it to motivate employees and maximize performance.
© Aubrey Daniels International, Inc. All rights reserved. 2022