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Knowing the difference can determine whether your organization will sink or soar.
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As more companies craft policies to address workplace bullying, many people are understandably confused about how to determine the difference between a toxic bully and a tough boss. It’s a critical distinction, since the former is universally bad for an organization, while the latter is essential for success. The following checklists can help leaders to identify both types quickly. They were based on research conducted during the fall of 2014 with the
U.S. Army and sponsored by
In general, toxic leaders act aggressively toward subordinates, are highly critical, and play mind games designed to keep people off balance. They often threaten or intimidate the people they lead through vicious insults or angry tirades. Sometimes they engage in physical attacks too. Their subordinates generally hate or fear them, often both, and try to stay out of their line of sight.
A person may be a toxic leader if he or she:
By contrast, tough bosses operate in a professional and self-controlled manner, are highly self-aware and emotionally mature, and make decisions with the best interests of both people and the organization in mind. They care about their people as evidenced by frequent personal interactions with subordinates, a willingness to listen to new ideas, and efforts to quickly resolve interpersonal conflicts. They take the time to mentor and coach their people.
However, working for a tough boss can be, well, tough. These leaders are intense and driven individuals whose demanding (and sometimes perfectionistic) expectations undoubtedly create a fair amount of tension and stress for those who work for them. The difference is that their employees understand that it’s not personal and that they are being pushed hard to achieve excellent results that will benefit both them personally and the organization. While it might not always be easy or fun, people who work for a tough boss tend to feel a great deal of respect for, and loyalty to, him or her.
A tough boss is someone who:
Which Are You?
It is hard to be objective about yourself, so you might also want to solicit the opinion of colleagues or friends who will be brutally frank with you. If your answers to these questions suggest that you have even a few toxic tendencies, it’s time to take action.
Consider apologizing to those you might have offended, and get the coaching or counseling that you need. Work on becoming more self-aware and paying closer attention to your impact on others. If you haven’t been through the
Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, consider taking it to learn more about your preferences and personality style.
Finally, practice active listening, and participate in your company’s system of 360-degree feedback assessment to see how you are coming across to your boss, peers, and subordinates at work.
Smart organizations have already figured out that they won't get great people to work for them by treating them poorly. So the time has come to start asking the tough questions—of yourself.
Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., is dean and professor of human resource leadership programs at
Sullivan University based in Louisville, Ky.
Gary S. Metcalf, Ph.D., is president of
InterConnections, LLC, a management consulting firm, and a faculty member in the
School of Organizational Leadership and Transformation at Saybrook University based in Oakland, Calif.
The authors are coauthors of
The Management of People in Mergers & Acquisitions
(Quorum Books, 2001).
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