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Are You a Toxic Leader or Just a Tough Boss?

Knowing the difference can determine whether your organization will sink or soar.

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HR Magazine June 2015As 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 Sullivan University.

Toxic Leaders

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:

  • Cares about achieving results so much that he fails to consider the impact of the work and schedule on employees and their families
  • Excessively focuses on her own pay and promotions.
  • Takes credit for the work of others.
  • Always thinks he is right and that his ideas are best.
  • Fails to get to know employees on a personal level.;
  • Is unconcerned or oblivious to employee morale.
  • Fails to listen to people and their ideas.
  • Often makes short-term decisions that make him look good but that will likely harm the organization in the long run.
  • Appears charming and personable to her boss while treating her employees badly (the “kiss up and kick down” approach).
  • Threatens, intimidates or humiliates people.
  • Treats people unfairly, inconsistently, and with a lack of respect.
  • Blames others for mistakes without taking any personal responsibility.
  • Has an inflated sense of self-importance.
  • Commits to meeting goals without securing the proper funding or personnel.
  • Fails to mentor or develop employees.
  • Creates a climate of fear, anxiety, or mistrust.

Tough Bosses

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:

  • Cares about achieving results but also considers the impact of the work and schedule on employees and their families.
  • Has a high level of self-awareness and emotional maturity.
  • Shows concern for people by listening and getting to know them on a personal level.
  • Acts professionally and self-controlled at work.
  • Seeks to resolve conflicts fairly and quickly.
  • Gives credit to others for achieving results.
  • Treats people fairly, consistently, and with respect at all times.
  • Takes time to mentor and develop subordinates.
  • Takes personal responsibility for mistakes in her unit or department.
  • Makes decisions that are in the long-term best interest of the organization.

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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