Surviving the toxic brigade

How many horrible bosses have you had? I’ve been feeling a bit triggered this week after seeing a newspaper article about my worst one.

It has brought back some very unhappy memories that have been bubbling and swirling in my head.

I am constantly surprised by the number of people who tell me about crushing experiences they’ve had with their bosses.

I don’t know if workplaces have always been this toxic or whether it’s a recent development, but it always shocks me to hear about the bad behaviour. I don’t know how bosses expect to get the best out of their teams – and optimum results for their businesses – when they don’t value their employees or treat them with empathy and respect.

Especially during the current skills crisis!

I read an interview with the CEO of Krug Champagne, Maggie Henriquez a few years ago, who said: “I truly believe a leader is not the one who says more or is the biggest, but is the one who is more followed and more respected.”

I feel there is so much truth in that.

She added: “If you assume leadership, leading companies and people, then you have to try to be at the service of your people. Part of this is to try to understand them and help them.”

It’s something I always tried to do when I was a boss. I miss – and don’t miss – being a leader. I enjoyed being able to cut through the noise, make decisions and get things happening. As one of the troops you don’t always have that power and it can be quite frustrating. On the other hand, there are advantages to not having the responsibility of running the ship.

Over the years I’ve worked with people who’ve both inspired and completely crushed me. The inspiring ones include former ACP Magazines publisher Pat Ingram, former ACP Singapore MD Julie Sherborn and the retired CEO of the Drinks Association, Sandra Przbilla (above), who all believed in me and championed my career.

Unfortunately, there have been some pretty uninspiring ones along the way. They were disappointing because I love being in workplaces where I can learn from others and bounce ideas around.

I have also encountered at least one sociopath, who was the one in the recent newspaper article. I stared at the photos illustrating the story about her and marvelled at how lovely and warm she looked. Sometimes a picture doesn’t paint a thousand words, it just conceals a thousand sins.

Nothing in those pictures would suggest she was someone whowould leave me in psychological tatters, so stressed that I ended up on a heart monitor.

It took a long time to recover from that experience and just when I was beginning to feel more like my old self I encountered a few toxic bosses who were threatened by diversity of thought and the innovation it brings.

They preferred to surround themselves with “yes” people who followed instructions and never questioned them. As a result, they created an environment where employees fear speaking up.

They disappoint me the most because their toxicity can’t be blamed on a psychological condition. They’re simply bad bosses who create unhappy workplaces.

As Adam Grant noted on Twitter: Things people aren’t afraid to say when they have psychological safety:

-I don’t know

-I made a mistake

-I disagree

-I might be wrong

-I have a concern

-I have an idea

No mistakes were allowed, no ideas were welcomed and no disagreement was countenanced. It was soul destroying.

Sometimes a manager’s insecurity can even lead to workplace gaslighting. You may have heard the term “gaslighting” used to describe people who psychologically manipulate their partners.

The term originates from the 1938 play “Gas Light” (adapted into the 1944 movie “Gaslight”) where a husband tries to get his wife committed to a mental hospital so he can steal from her. He causes the gas lights in the house to flicker, but claims not to see it when confronted by his wife, causing her to believe she’s going crazy.

However, it’s not just romantic partners that can be abusers, gaslighting is also disturbingly common in the workplace, leading co-workers to question their ability and self worth.

Have you ever been in that situation? It’s pretty awful.

If you are feeling emotionally unsafe in the workplace, Psychology Today suggests these four attributes often distinguish workplace gaslighting from other types of challenges on the job:

  • The difficult work situation is based on persistent individual, group, or institutional bias and negativity, rather than solid proof, strong facts, established cases, and/or proven data. 
  • The difficult work environment creates a negative/unfavorable narrative about the gaslightee (contrary to evidence), and damages the gaslightee’s personal or professional reputation.
  • The mistreatment persists over a period of time, despite a clear track record of the gaslightee’s positive collaboration, contributions, and accomplishments.
  • When approached on the matter, the gaslighter typically denies mistreatment, and can become defensive, contentious, dismissive, and/or evasive. Instead of using verification and facts to problem-solve, the gaslighter may escalate and become more aggressive, or stonewall and become more passive-aggressive.

Medium notes: “Primarily, the gaslighter wants the target to question the validity of their ideas and contributions, thereby making the target believe that they incompetent and have no valuable contributions. Secondarily, the gaslighter is trying to convince people around them that the target is not someone to be trusted or taken seriously.”

Signs can include:

  • Continually shooting down the target’s suggestions
  • Ignoring or taking credit for the target’s contributions
  • Stating or implying that the target’s work is sub-par
  • Micromanagement

Amberley Meredith, consultant at Being Well Process and a registered Australian psychologist, told HRM: “They will tell your co-workers and the other managers that you have mental health issues, or that you’re crazy and incapable of doing your job. They will discreetly point out ways in which you can be seen to be lying or are unreliable.

“Part of this behaviour includes aligning other people against you. This erosion of your workplace self-identity is done gradually. This means you are unlikely to question what is happening, and you more than likely start to believe what you are being told and accept that you are the problem.”

Meredith said it’s hard give a blanket reason for why gaslighters do what they do.

“Invariably, you can probably expect some kind of trauma in their background where they’ve felt out of control,” she speculated. “People don’t just wake up and suddenly think, ‘I’m going to be a gaslighter now’ – it’s gradual.”

Gaslighters often manipulate both their superiors and their workers to ensure they also control those who are managing them.

“Managing this behaviour can become quite dangerous because the gaslighter can become very accusatory,” said Meredith. “They might claim harassment or gender discrimination; they threaten and almost hold companies to ransom.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with a gaslighter. You should notify the HR department and record conversations and incidents in a journal in case you need to take further action.

HRM advises to not “get sucked into their web”, as employees subjected gaslighting “may require therapy to help them adjust and adapt to what they have been exposed to”.

Psychology Today concludes: “The result of chronic gaslighting is that it can make the gaslightee feel “lesser” as a team member, contributor, or provider of product or service. One may even begin to question one’s own professional credibility and personal self-worth, wondering if the gaslighter is justified in their judgments and accusations (despite evidence to the contrary). Gaslighting is a form of psychological brainwashing.”

If you feel like you might be the victim of gaslighting or other terrible behaviour in the workplace that’s affecting your mental health, my advice is to get out as fast as you can. You spend so much time working, it’s not worth the damage it can do to your mental health.

OK, that was a bit of a heavy one, but it’s been on my chest for a long time.

Fortunately I am filled with hope for 2023. My two favourite workplace things are creating stuff and growing it in the digital space and I will have the chance to do lots of both this year.

Have a great weekend, catch you next week.

Song of the day: Britney Spears “Toxic”

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