Office politics can be as unrelenting as your kid’s playground battles. You might even say they’re indistinguishable from one another. Those little skirmishes around status and picking who’s it in a game of tag seem to be an inevitable feature of human existence. It’s all about learning how to play the game in a socially acceptable way, which is precisely the opposite of toxic leadership.
Because there’s a fine line between bending a few ill-conceived rules and treating others unfairly. Things get even trickier when it comes to your dependent work relationships. Where is the line between sensible yet unpopular management decisions and toxic leadership behaviours? In other words, how much slack should you cut your boss?
Toxic Leadership Behaviour
I’ll admit, toxic is a bit of a loaded term. Broadly speaking, we can consider anything to be toxic that comes in a harmful dose. Is water only good? It looks like drinking too much of it can result in water poisoning. Are there any downsides to helping others? Well, it can indeed cause you harm if it leads to learning opportunities being stolen from you.
By the same token, any excessive leadership behaviour can make you weaker and less productive. After all, that’s what micromanagement is all about. If you add an element of deceit, such conduct can easily destroy your enthusiasm alongside your soul. So is it that simple? Of course not. We can’t rely on our feelings, intuition and anecdotal evidence alone. But how can we tell at what level the dose becomes harmful? Before turning to simmering frogs for guidance, let’s look at five examples of potentially toxic leadership behaviours.
1. Strategic Silence
Imagine you’ve been waiting for the approval of a new project. You know, the one you put so much work in. The one that fits your organisation’s strategic goals as well as your personal ones. Leadership has indicated a resounding Yes. But you haven’t heard from them in ages and nobody responds to your email requests. Well, it’s possible they’re being strategically silent.
Strategic silence is an elegant way of saying you’re being ignored. While the silent part refers to general inaction or lack of communication, the strategic element implies that this behaviour is not random. It’s done to achieve a long-term goal. So the two key questions here are whether the silence is deliberate and if so to what end. Is strategic silence toxic leadership behaviour?
Well, leaders are human, too. There’s a myriad of legitimate reasons for the radio silence. Potentially, they don’t have new information for you, had to prioritise other requests, or want to gain time to think and reflect or discuss further with their superiors. It’s also entirely possible that it’s an oversight and you’ve been forgotten. In which case you wrongly assumed they’re being strategic. In any case, strategic silence can mean both, lack of communication of a negative or a positive piece of information. The fact that you’re not hearing anything doesn’t have to be to your disadvantage.
However, by definition, you don’t know the reasons for their silence. And we’ve known since Paul Watzlawick that “You cannot not communicate!” By not interacting with you, leadership sends a message in and of itself. If they want to or not, this creates suspense and tension of the unwanted kind. What makes this behaviour potentially toxic is the fact that you would expect good communication and a certain degree of transparency from leadership. This inaction can come with its own dangers and unintended side effects.
What does leadership gain from not communicating with you? How does it affect your work as the silence continues? Would it be ridiculous to think they’re hoping you give up without them having to make a call?
2. Stalling Tactics
Imagine leadership is back communicating. But now there seems to be a perpetual need for advice from a third party. Then people are on leave, called in sick, and further advice is needed. Still, nobody says no to your project. On the contrary, they encourage you to continue refining your pitch. Seems like they’re using stalling tactics.
Stalling tactics are another classic move in contemporary power games. Generally, the idea is to slow down the pace, keep you in a holding pattern, and buy time before making a decision (or not). The tactical element points towards the attempt to gain short-term advantages. The only question here is for what? Are stalling tactics toxic leadership behaviour?
Leaders are human, too. The reasons why leadership would use such tactics are quite similar to the ones discussed above. The stalling may very well be legitimate or for benevolent reasons. You’re not entitled to know everything that’s going on upstairs. Otherwise, they’d pay you more. That being said, it’s hard not to picture them sitting around plotting their next obstructive move to hold you back. Resist the attempt to fill the decision vacuum with conspiracy theories.
However, the problem with stalling is that you can’t do it forever. Stalling a plane, for example, will ultimately lead to its crash. Unless their strategic goal is to crash the plane, that is to get you to give up your project. The explanations for the delays should give you something to work with.
Are the reasons given to you plausible and verifiable? Or do they seem like lucky coincidences and mere excuses? Would it be unreasonable to think leadership doesn’t want to commit to your project?
3. Buck Passing
Imagine your project is still not approved. Leadership is no longer silent and has transcended stalling. You still don’t have an answer, though. It’s not in their remit they say. Now leadership refers you to accounts who refer you to an external provider who refers you back to your boss. Well, looks like someone’s passing the buck.
Buck passing is the act of attributing one’s own responsibility to someone else. You may also know it as the blame game. Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops wherever I can find someone who is stupid enough to take the blame.” That is of course untrue. The sign read: “The Buck Stops Here!” and was intended as a constant reminder of his ultimate responsibility for all decisions made. Not every leader is a Truman or Truwoman, however. A buck can be passed back and forth infinitely. Between different departments or organisations, for instance. Or vertically up and down the hierarchy. Is buck-passing toxic leadership behaviour?
Leaders are human, too, you know. Sometimes they delegate work so they don’t get crushed under the workload. On other occasions, they really have no idea if they’re responsible, for example in case your project is so innovative that it doesn’t fit an existing category. The organisation may have a flat hierarchy, too. If responsibility is dispersed, they may act inefficiently, but in good faith. Lastly, your boss may truly be powerless and doesn’t want to damage the relationship with you.
However, once the buck has been passed around in a circle and there’s still no progress, it may be time to raise an eyebrow. Managing up is a great principle of ownership. But if you have to carry too much of your boss’ weight, it may be time to consider the Peter Principle or toxic leadership as explanations.
Is there any indication of when and where the buck will finally stop? How has it so far affected your work? Does it seem like, when leadership throws a coin, it always lands on the side?
4. The Rhetorical Meat Grinder
Imagine the buck has stopped and your project is finally approved. It’s a miracle. One more and you’re eligible to become a saint. You can congratulate yourself — until you have this conversation with your boss at the photocopier:
Boss: Sorry, I can’t approve your project.
You: I thought we already had an agreement.
Boss: But that was only in passing.
You: Well, we were in your office, sat in chairs and shook hands on it.
Boss: Let’s just agree that it was tentative.
Boss: Yeah, we just agreed that we were working towards the approval, didn’t we?
Sounds like someone’s putting you through a rhetorical meat grinder.
The rhetorical meat grinder is a form of language nitpickery that comes in many flavours. In essence, it works by putting words and their meaning through the linguistic grinder until they’re unrecognisable. First, your “agreement” is watered down to ‘informal’, then it is reduced to “tentative”. Eventually, there’s nothing left of the “approval” and you’re back at the drawing board. We could think about it as a form of incremental strawmanning. So, is the rhetorical meat grinder an example of toxic leadership behaviour?
Remember, leaders are human, too. It’s possible that they made the decision to approve your project prematurely and got called back by their supervisor. From here on out it’s all about saving face, communicating this to you in a coded way and giving it another go. Maybe the motivation behind their conduct is even that they think highly of you. Perhaps your boss doesn’t want you to think he or she runs around like a headless chicken.
However, it leaves a bitter aftertaste if leadership cannot admit to mistakes and has to take rhetoric backroads to fix them. A clear vision of the road ahead and predictability are highly desirable leadership qualities. I would assume they’d expect the same straightforwardness of you.
What does this incident tell you about your boss’ relationship with upstairs? What are the consequences for your project? What does this experience tell you about leadership’s value hierarchy?
5. Selective Enforcement of Rules
Imagine you’ve had enough imagining that imbecilic project. Shouldn’t be too hard by now. You remember the Code of Conduct that was rolled out ceremoniously a few years ago. ‘We do as we say and say as we do,’ the code proclaims. You want your boss’ decision reviewed. It would be nice if someone else could take some responsibility for a change. Someone other than you. The verdict is in and what do you know? Your own conduct was lacking. Looks like the rules may have been enforced selectively.
Selective enforcement of rules happens when those in charge pick and choose when to apply which rule and to whom. It’s quite the opposite of a fair trial. Codes of Conduct have to be written at a higher level of abstraction and cannot account for all potential interactions. Honesty and integrity, for example, are beautiful ideals. But there’s lots of room for interpretation. This room can be occupied by people who are all but independent in their judgement. Is the selective enforcement of rules toxic leadership behaviour?
Yes. But be careful, you are human, too. Making a judgement is hard and there may be legitimate leeway to use personal discretion. Deep down you know that you’re not entitled to a certain outcome. Sometimes there are factors at play that are above your pay grade. The enforcement of rules may only appear selective. You yourself may have fallen into an intuitive trap such as the halo effect.
However, there are indicators you can look out for to tell if a rule is applied inconsistently and weaponised against you. In an effort of a Russell Conjugation, your passion for the project may have been mislabeled as aggression without evidence. All while your boss’ erratic decision-making is framed favourably as flexible. The selective application of different ethical frameworks is another way by which rules can be enforced selectively. Your questioning a direction from up top may be deemed wrong in principle (Deontological Ethics). All while your boss’ lack of integrity is being judged based on the outcome or his or her noble intent (Consequentialism). The bottom line is that rules are worthless without appropriate and independent mechanisms to adjudicate them.
How transparent was the decision-making process? What are your options to have it reviewed? What are the chances that your repeated setbacks are features, not bugs?
Bear in mind that this list of potentially toxic leadership conduct is by no means exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of plenty more. In any case, you can apply them all to the boiling frog.
The Boiling Frog
The boiling frog is a fable about an amphibian being slowly cooked to death. It’s said that if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will jump right out. But if you were to put the frog in cold water and heat it up slowly, the frog wouldn’t notice the rising temperature and end up being boiled alive. Being a fable, we may doubt the real-life validity of those claims. But there’s a moral in that story that can help us handle toxic leadership.
What the frog is trying to tell us is that change can be too gradual for us to notice. A single negative incident can be easily dismissed. But seemingly minor conflicts and problems can accrue over time until they reach a harmful level. When we realise what’s happening, it may already be too late. That’s because we seem inclined to refuse to believe that something terrible could happen until it actually happens. It’s comparable to a black swan event, one that nobody has on their radar and is considered highly improbable. Yet, it has a severe impact if it happens. It’s only in hindsight that we notice the signs.
Toxic Leadership Antidote
Being a frog in a pan usually starts with a few supposedly unrelated incidents and a gut feeling. It seems like the initial hurdle to uncovering such a toxic situation is to get comfortable with the idea that there may be ill intent at play. That means entertaining the possibility, not assuming people are out to get you. Thankfully, Hanlon’s Razor tells us that ignorance and incompetence are more likely drivers of negative situations than bad intent. But you can still prepare for the worst by concocting an exit strategy while expecting the best. It’ll give you options and the confidence to get to the bottom of this.
From there you may want to treat your toxic leadership hypothesis as just that, a hypothesis. Approaching your suspicion with curiosity will also help contain potential anger and resentment. To test your hypothesis, start mapping all those little observations and incidents. Use the rule of three: One time is nothing, two is a coincidence, three is a pattern:
- Categorise and map your observations across time, hierarchies and projects. The more data points you collect, the less likely it is that your grievances are a figment of your imagination.
- To counter your inevitable bias, run your findings by friends and family, people you trust. Get colleagues involved and see whether they noticed similar patterns.
- Learn the art of negotiation, for example as taught by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss in Never Split the Difference. Use tactical empathy to discern intent, discover black swans and get what you want without sacrificing your relationships.
These three strategies are a wonderful way to find out what’s actually flawed, the game or you. In case you want to completely nerd out, run your data through a diagnostic analytical technique such as an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses or Deception Detection. It’ll be a lot of extra work. But regardless of whether your hypothesis is proven true or not, you’ll be a lot wiser coming out the other end. Plus, your soul gets infused with some much-needed antidote.
In uncovering toxic leadership behaviours, you have to do precisely what you suspect management is lacking: the will or the ability to make fair judgements and act with integrity. Once the evidence is in and you’ve come to your conclusion, it’s time to make a decision and act on it. Don’t wait for Godot, trust your judgement.
Like our kids, we have to observe the games that are being played. We have to learn how to play them well so we know when someone’s messing with the rules. When we realise everyone’s pretending to enjoy a game of tag, but some ankle-biters keep getting away with playing rugby, it may be time to change playgrounds.