I’m reading the book Toxic Emotions at Work at the moment and it started a journey down memory lane for me. When I first started out in the workforce many years ago, I had a manager who really soured my experience at work.
As the Victim of a Toxic Boss
He brought his issues to work, spewing bile everywhere. The relationship wasn’t always bad though. In fact buoyed by a promotion for both of us, we worked very well for the first 6 months. Then something happened – the lengthy drunken lunches began, often going from 12pm to 5pm, the phone was thrown against a wall, the fist put through the window, the customer complaints poured in.
It got personal when he started to make little things difficult – refusing to approve study leave and insisting instead that I use personal leave, making his displeasure publicly known when I was 5 minutes late back from lunch, piling me with his filing. All quite clearly to communicate to me who was boss!
Then, after months of covering for him, he showed his appreciation by giving me an unfavourable performance appraisal which threatened my progression in that organisation. To top it off, my protests were hushed by the “higher-ups” in an attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet, so I resigned in disgust.
The book talks about toxic individuals at work as well as organisational toxicity. My example was definitely one of a toxic boss who destroyed a potentially fruitful working relationship, but the organisational response was not just pathetic but in fact fostered a breeding ground for more toxicity.
By definition, toxic individuals take many forms and are not confined to bosses. The book describes the causes of toxicity as seven deadly “INs” and I’ve summarised them as follows:
- INtention – Individuals who intentionally cause pain by degrading and undermining others.
- INcompetence – Managers with weak or inadequate people skills – those are inconsistent or control freaks who micromanage
- INfidelity – Betrayal by supervisors, managers or co-workers creating bitterness, mistrust and fear
- INsensitivity – Managers who have trouble identifying with a staff member’s distress or those who believe that personal lives should not impact the workplace
- INtrusion – The flip side of charismatic leaders who draw followers into unsustainable work regimens
- INstitutional forces – Corporate agendas and practices that hurt the people who carry them out
- INevitability – Unavoidable pain of corporate life such as unexpected downsizings, aspects of leadership aptly described by the following quote:
“Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible” ~ Colin Powell
In the midst of these, toxin handlers respond to the pain in their organisations by minimising, preventing, containing, removing it or find ways that people can live with it constructively. Toxin handlers have complex motivations for doing the work that they do and these are covered in detail in the book.
As the Toxin Handler
Fast forward a number of years and I find myself in the role of toxin handler. The merger of my organisation was a textbook case of toxicity – corporate politics, uncertainty, lack of communication, insecurity, manipulation, desperation and betrayal. Balancing confidentiality of proceedings on one hand and providing scraps of information to try and assuage the uncertainty and insecurity on the other. Filtering sometimes brutal messages and smoothing egos so that everyone could focus on the organisational priority of getting the merger completed. Throw in a combination of manipulation and reassurance to ensure the boat kept afloat in case the merger fell through, and what you get is a hair-trigger. Maintaining this delicate balance meant putting my own needs, concerns and insecurities on hold.
From an operational perspective, the merger was a success. The human cost of the toxicity immeasurable.
Yes, my personal experience matches what the book describes, that the role of toxin handlers often go unnoticed, unappreciated resulting in burnout of the handler – psychologically, physically and professionally.
This book is a recommended read for all leaders, managers and anyone who has been exposed to toxicity at work and would like a better understanding of it.