Shortly after sharing my ATTN: Private blog on RallyPoint in 2017, an Army Private said he wished he'd read it earlier. Because of that statement and a month-long break from blogging, I'd planned to prioritize uncommon topics for a short while. That didn't happen as my focus narrowed on my music production goals. But my ideas queue became filled with personal topics similar to lessons from near death experiences and stuff I'm surprised I enjoy.
This topic was at the top of that list for four, eventful years. But this is hefty one that is controversial in some ways. People I've worked with in the past will catch wind of this and wonder if I'm talking about them. Anyone working with me at the time of reading this will wonder if this is passive aggression, despite the fact that they likely already know how I feel about them. If I've worked under you at any point, you're likely in here somewhere. To be fair, I will one day write about my regrets as a leader, in and out of management roles. Accountability all around.
Four years later, in the midst of the Coronavirus era, I'm finally taking time to collect my thoughts on toxic leadership in the hopes that it will help others. Similar to that Army soldier, I hope to help veterans, professionals, artists, and children navigate toxic environments.
Please remember that I’m speaking from personal experience and am not a professional in any type of behavioral studies.
1. Toxic People Make You the Fall Guy
Working with managers who prefer to surround themselves with Yes man can be painful. I'll with group settings where I decided to voice an opinion that rivals someone with an “alpha personality” or not accustomed to being corrected by subordinates. These individuals normally had a high amount of the original five types of power:
- Legal or legitimate
I've hurt a few manager's pride this way, offering suggestions to improve someone's pet project or pull it in line with a regulation I've read. My reward was a special spot directly under a tyrannical microscope. That, mixed with my habit of taking initiative to address things without requesting permission first, would make me a threat to their status.
Suddenly, any mistake on my part is used to pull me down while building themselves up. The most common ones I've encountered:
Forced exclusiong. Being excluded from important info but blamed for not being informed. Fix: save emails and other written communication.
Achievements and contributions downplayed as actions that only happened due to someone else’s efforts (usually theirs). Fix: always note accomplishments in performance reviews. As an NCO, I'd encourage soldiers to write something before signing DA form 4856 counseling forms. Anything I might've missed or that they wanted to ensure included their side of the story on file.
Actually write something, like accomplishments and notable completed tasks, on performance reviews before signing off. No one is likely to care about your career more than you. And you never know when something on your performance review could be the reason you're promoted or awarded another incentive. Soldiers, that includes the DA 4856 feedback section. Also, remember a 4856 is complete when the back bottom third is completed by the counselor and counseled Soldier reviewing the matter. Last I checked, leaders still neglect this. Admittedly, I was one of them.
Gaslighting about weaknesses, past mistakes, and especially situations with a lot of grey area for who was right or wrong. Fix: learn how to handle triggers. When I need to get away, I get away.
Personal attacks when they want to “win” or derail an argument. When I catch it, I just call it out and ask how such statements relate to the matter at hand.
2. You Learn to Spot Toxicity
This is where websites like The Mind Unleashed, I Heart Intelligence, and The Earth Tribe (no longer online) talking about narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths helped me. Then MedCircle became a go-to source for learning how to spot and deal with emotional manipulation techniques. Their content is great for improving emotional intelligence.
The important thing is to remain professional. No, since such situations happen in our personal lives as well, be mature. Don't post passive aggressive social media posts knowing your online profile affects your personal and professional life. At least, don't say anything you wouldn't say or haven't already said to their face. At best, try to initiate an one-on-one conversation with the toxic individual to discuss the situation. You should at least learn something from their point of view or, if they're not welcome to discussion, body language. Perception is reality and can create issues.
Toxic leadership isn't synonymous with disliking a Leader's leadership style. Good leaders adapt to each individual knowing everyone can't be effectively led the same. But clear communication can help others understand how to lead you. Also, there could always be something you don't know about a particular situation. Leaders are people, too. And leadership is "on the job training," or OJT by nature.
Because of all this...
3. You Learn to Spot Ego Trips
You have to realize that sometimes tact beats facts, especially when dealing with proud folks or the facts oppose popular opinion. Most definitely when you don't have much influence among a social circle. When someone proud can't argue against facts, they may look for excuses to lash out and deflect from the issue at hand:
Perceived disrespect. In the Army, I've heard this masked as insubordination. That can be a grey area because while insubordination is and should be taken seriously, soldiers are occasionally reminded that everyone is a leader. Every soldier is charged with ensuring orders they receive and send are ethical. Everyone is charged with yelling "cease fire" when something dangerous happens on the shooting range.
With that said, doing your job correctly versus doing your job wrongly but how someone wanted you to can get tricky. It definitely tests integrity. No, nothing happened to me administratively due to such situations. But that leader and I never saw eye to eye after that. Trust was gone. I struggled to "respect the rank." Moving on.
A much lighter trick is to regurgitate outdated information. I can use the new promotion point worksheet for this example. When the DA form 3305??? converted to the PPW in 2010, I knew the changes better than most senior NCO's I'd worked with.Have to protect that pride, you know.
You Learn to Seek the Truth
Understanding "why" and "how" is the first step to solving the problem. People may be acting on outdated or misinterpreted information. Read related, updated regulations, policies, and laws. Many times, documentation is updated without much notification.
Build rapport with subject matter experts in related industries. Ask what happened in past related situations and why. Ask about commonly misunderstood things. This arms you with practical knowledge on the matter and the source on why something is supposed to be done a certain way.
When applicable, write time-stamped documents noting witnesses, dates, and times for controversial incidents. You can't remember everything. Email someone you trust. Record yourself talking about what happened. Soldiers could write a memorandum for record.
Asking questions the right way makes it clear that you seek understanding. So while researching facts, ask others involved in toxic situations for their interpretation. Maybe you'll learn something about how you're perceived. Maybe someone will tell you something you didn't know. This should help you decipher where the facts and emotions are clashing.
In summary, have evidence and points of contact so others can verify information for themselves, if they don't prematurely choose to run from the truth first. Yep, that's where I'm going next.
4. You Learn Tact
Remember when I said tact beats facts? Dropping a truth bomb on someone in a group setting can kill any opportunity to save face. So, how do you correct someone that's used to being around "yes" men? Normally, face to face while alone with non-threatening body language works best for me. Be direct and relaxed with evidence ready. That's not to say it works often, though. Moving on, time-sensitive issues might not afford you that luxury. It might be hard to pry them away from others, especially the extreme extroverts. Sometimes, it is better to simply drop that bomb and stand fast through the social debris.
My preference when confronting someone is difficult or doesn't work: an email or other written message with sources included. Sometimes, I courtesy copy (CC) someone or share in a group chat so there are witnesses able to check the info for themselves (if they haven't decided to distance themselves from the conflict). If I can't be present to ensure they read it, I try to have some type of read receipt. Email providers can email you read receipts and delivery reports. LinkedIn and other social media platforms do both automatically.
With proof that they've acknowledged the message, there's no excuse not to have taken the time to click a link. If you really want to be sure, you could use something to track link clicks like an URL shortener. That's excessive, though it serves as a reminder of how some will duck anything that threatens their "truth."
I've also stuck sources to support controversial points in presentations, overtly and in presenter notes. Many people use meetings to discuss issues they didn't make time to handle beforehand. In some organizations, it's the best way to force everyone to listen. Again, the message needs to be direct and impossible to ignore.
5. You Learn to Take Initiative
It's not ideal to wait on toxic (or non-toxic) managers to make decisions that should be trusted and delegated to subordinates junior folks. The same can be said for personal relationships including friendships and family matters. For those situations I like to:
- Analyze the issue
- Get expert advice on the issue
- Do something small to help the situation now
- Update necessary people on what I've done about the core issue with possible solutions
If I get anything less than cooperation on working to solve an issue that's sure to make a mess in the near future, sometimes I just go solo. Taking initiative isn't about getting credit and recognition, although that's definitely helpful at times (e.g. performance reviews). It's in:
- Having Making time to dedicate to an issue that will get worse quickly
- Expecting that if the issue gets worse without intervention, a toxic person will find a clever way to shift blame to me when I'm not around to defend myself
- Knowing my suggestion may go ignored if I don't have much influence among the social circle
- Showing competence in resolving issues to contradict undercover smear campaigns
In summary, taking initiative can debunk false claims. Here are a few common situations that come to mind:
- Issues that result from managers failing to place workers in position to use their strengths and help develop (or at least mitigate) weaknesses (e.g. disabilities or burnout)
- Someone belittling a relative around family members without the victim's knowledge while preventing them from being able to defend themselves
I know, there's a lot going on in this section. Maybe reread it after finishing the blog for better understanding.
6. Others Respect You But Don't Back You Openly
I can think of a few times where I've told a toxic leader off and someone later pulled me aside to say they deserved it. It goes without saying that I still received some type of punishment for my actions. But I and those closely tied to the situation knew it was out of spite. And my integrity was still in tact.
Being at a crossroads choosing between your integrity and maintaining status (financial, social, etc.) can be difficult. I won't knock someone for keeping their head down to keep their job and provide for their family. You have to pick your battles wisely and many can be won in more than one way. I will say toxicity often depends on this as a coercive power. Remember the five types of power I listed at the beginning? This is why coercion is at the bottom. If you have to depend on coercion, there are bigger issues. In this case, it is likely:
- Poor leadership skills
- Malicious, ulterior motives
- Lack of time due to poor time management
7. You Lose Battles - But Hopefully Win the War
Lots of success stories with pessimism above. When toxic individuals are called out on their BS, sometimes they restrict their words and actions to only what's needed save face. They'll shut up, have an emotional tangent, and/or just storm off.
Other times, you get fired, arrested, sued, etc. as if you were the one causing trouble. They played the victim well enough (or you didn't expose the reality enough) that you're seen as the problem. Maybe you were gaslit or others didn't have your back. Regardless, the reality is that unlike in movies people don't always do the right thing and band together.
Sometimes the truth doesn't always matter more what someone wants to believe. Some facts are too painful for us at certain times coming from certain people.
8. You Realize that Toxic People Read Stuff Like This to Learn How to Escape Accountability
The most toxic people I know usually wouldn't write toxic crap in a message or text, especially not in a group setting where everyone can see them for who they are. That's where they state the fake, kind political correctness (PC) stuff with subtle disses when they think no one will dare call them on it or they can play it off if someone does. They save the BS for the oral conversations unless you're able to force them to have the conversation via text. Then there's that weird debate about keeping private messages private versus sharing them to right wrongdoing. A snake might use this argument if you expose their true darkness.
When in doubt, assume anything you post online will stay online and become "viral."
9. You Learn to Cut People Out of Your Life
If trying to talk with someone to resolve an issue doesn't work, there's a point when you gotta cut sling-load. If you can't remove them from your life (co-worker, classmate, etc.), mitigate how much time you spend around them. Clarify why if you feel necessary (during projects or among a team for example) but you don't owe anyone that. Put yourself and your mental health first. Force them to find attention elsewhere.
I recommend active service members read what other veterans have shared about toxic leadership on RallyPoint.com. I recommend everyone learn more about psychopaths and sociopaths.