The toxic manager

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Some managers are toxic most of the time; most managers are toxic some of the time. How to deal with them?

"I've been in the role of human resources manager for three years, reporting to the COO. My manager does not really appreciate HR as a practice, she does not see talent as a strategic issue. She views it as a transactional function, treats me as an administrator, I am not included in talent or workforce decision-making processes. I try to be proactive with ideas, initiatives, bringing external benchmarks, but in response I get constant criticism, which she refers to as 'coaching.' When I roll out our organizational programs she is never there to support and help me push them through, and she does not help me achieve my goals, but then she criticizes me for not meeting them. It really affects me emotionally; I experience stress and anxiety. Last week, I offered my resignation, which she did not accept, asking me to give it another try. How do I keep the job without my mental health paying the price?" Tamir, HR manager at a higher education institution

Our work is a significant part of our life and mental health. Everyone who has experienced challenging times at work knows how it affects us, far beyond the actual working hours. The current constrained and competitive environment, characterized by stretched goals and dwindling resources, can sometimes drive managers to unproductive and even abusive behavior.

From what you're describing, it sounds as though you might be experiencing abusive behavior from your direct superior who is one of the most senior managers in the organization. In addition, your role as HR manager puts you in a unique position in which you cannot share this with anyone else in the organization to get help and support.

The manager-employee relationship is one of the most important employee engagement drivers. Studies have shown that a bad and toxic relationship has a devastating effect on employee motivation, morale, and productivity, and may even cause long-term career stagnation.

How do you know if you work for a toxic manager? What is the fine line between setting high expectations and challenging goals and non-legitimate managerial behavior? How do you distinguish developmental feedback from lethal criticism?

Abusive behavior is systematic behavior that lasts over time, belittles employees, and keeps them second guessing themselves. It can involve outbursts of anger, humiliation, false accusations, social and professional isolation, and denial of information, access and resources. All of these impair employees’ performance, self- perception, and mental health.

Developmental feedback or constructive criticism is very desirable as long as it serves the purpose of the employee’s growth, not shame and humiliation.

Much of the individual’s successful performance stems from the manager's ability to provide the broader organizational context, connect to relevant stakeholders, and provide an on-going support and reinforcement.

Some managers are toxic most of the time; most managers are toxic some of the time.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of a drastic positive change in your manager’s behavior seems low. However, knowing how to effectively deal with that dysfunctional behavior can improve your own health.

Here are some tips:

  • Do not take it personally. Keep in mind that she owns her behavioral choices, however dysfunctional and undesirable they might be. You may even be able to develop some empathy for the challenging situation she is facing and offer your help.
  • Be conscious about setting boundaries. It will help you assess whether your manager's behavior is legitimate or offensive. If it is indeed offensive, explain yourself clearly and respectfully. She may not be even aware of her toxic behavior and a clarifying, constructive conversation might generate more awareness on her behalf.
  • Stay true to yourself and follow your values. It will keep you from getting trapped in these kinds of dysfunctional conflicts, as this behavior can be very infectious. Resist the (natural) desire to fight back, which can escalate the conflict.
  • Fight the temptation to feel victimized; victims cannot lead. Be active and do not refrain from expressing your views in a respectful way. Use your personal power bases to generate influence and support.

Want to share a dilemma or consult? Write to us at

Professor Amir Grinstein studies and teaches pro-social marketing and entrepreneurship at Northeastern University in Boston and VU in Amsterdam. He writes on Twitter about behavioral research @AmirGrinstein.

Yana Shechterman is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston., on Twitter @shechterman

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on October 4, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

managers  picture: shutterstock
managers picture: shutterstock
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