Friday, January 10, 2014

Toxic Bosses

This is a compelling look at "toxic bosses," and the US Army's effort to combat this internal threat.

I've had my own traumatic experiences with toxic bosses over the years, and several friends and family have shared their own experiences with toxic bosses. I'm impressed with this enlightened approach to leadership that the Army is taking. It's particularly interesting to note that this came out of research into suicide cases, and a result of the Army's decision to employ anthropologists.

There are also toxic colleagues. Having a good boss helps to mitigate that, but the strategy I've usually employed with toxic bosses is to leave. It's risky to try and resolve the toxic boss problem otherwise, unless the institution provides a safe means to do so.

I was in a department once where all the staff got together and went over the head of the manager to complain. Our boss's boss sat the department and the manager down in a room and told us all to voice our issues directly to the manager, and gave the manager the chance to respond and address the issues. Things were a little better after that. However, that manager was given another department later on, and continued to create problems for as long as he or she was with the organization.

A 360-degree review process as the Army is proposing is definitely a step in the right direction. However, I have not always felt I could count on my boss's boss for support. Sometimes it's a case of the abuse rolling down hill. Although, I'd also like to note that being abused by your own boss is no excuse to abuse your own subordinates - I've been in the middle of that before, too, and had to shelter my team and stand up for them.

If you have an abusive boss, it's important to remember that you can leave. When the economy is bad, when you have a family to provide for, bills to pay, it's easy to feel trapped in a job. Emotional abuse takes a toll on you, and it's difficult to make time to look for a new job. However, staying in a toxic environment can lead to a host of personal problems outside of work. It can lead to depression and anxiety, so I can understand how it could eventually lead to suicide.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu describes the tactic of pushing deep into enemy territory right away. The reason for this is to prevent desertion. For a conscripted medieval army, desertion was a huge problem. He goes on to advise generals to put their forces in a position of no escape because they will fight harder if winning is the only way to survive. Always give your enemy a way to escape so that the enemy force will be tempted to desert.

That approach may have been a necessary evil with a conscripted medieval army, but it's out of place in a modern volunteer army. However, military personnel often find themselves far from home and their support network, especially if they are deployed overseas. Once they become active duty, they are legally bound to fulfill their contract of service, like it or not. Civilians like me can walk away from a job much more easily.

If you're in an abusive work environment, I think it's extremely important to talk to someone. Many people don't want to burden their spouse or partner, so there are many other options. Most employers offer some sort of EAP (Employee Assistance Program). Someone in HR may be available to talk about a "hypothetical" situation (if you don't keep it hypothetical, they may be obligated to report the incident - and this may be true of all managers). A trusted colleague, or former colleague, can be great support.

Blabbing to everyone about your problems could cause you a lot of trouble, but being able to talk with someone who understands the situation did wonders to ease my burden. That can be enough to help you get through until you land another job or manage a transfer to another department.

If you're thinking about fighting to keep your job, keep in mind another lesson I took from The Art of War: Never fight a battle unless the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor.

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