We've all had one and we all dread them: The Toxic Tyrant Boss (TTB). Having a TTB for a boss can make your life a living hell. Male, female, short, tall, manipulative or bullying, a TTB can stall your career, sap your motivation, ruin your work and even damage your health. In fact, an article in Talent Smart, found that over 60% of government workers surveyed at the time complained of bad bosses. The article further cited research that indicated that having a bad boss had been shown in multiple studies to increase the chance of a heart attack by up 50% (click to Tweet). So when your TTB asks you to put your "heart and soul" into your job, chances are you might literally be doing so.
So how do we define a TTB? According to Collins Dictionary, in ancient Greece a tyrant was an absolute ruler. Often times, this ruler seized power illegally and was commonly known as a usurper. For our purposes, we'll say that a tyrant in a business setting also governs arbitrarily, unjustly and in a cruel, despotic fashion. Talent Smart expands on this definition by adding: "The tyrant resorts to Machiavellian tactics and constantly makes decisions that feed his ego. His primary concern is maintaining power, and he will coerce and intimidate others to do so." Tyrants also usually have very low emotional intelligence which makes them oblivious to the feelings and the needs of those around them even when it's to their own detriment (since, ultimately, they need their people to succeed if they themselves will be successful).
So how do you manage a TTB and are there clear actions you can take before hitting a wall and finally running for the exit? There's always hope and here are some things that can help:
1. Understand the TTB's communication style: Building open communication and understanding how your boss prefers to communicate is critical in any relationship but it's even more important with a TTB. Some boss' are more introverted and prefer email, written reports or Slack messages. Others prefer face to face 1-1's, video calls or phone calls. Find out which style your TTB prefers and stick to that. That will, at the very least, ensure that you are able to communicate with them and potentially be heard.
2. Try to set up frequent 1-1's. I talked about the importance of 1-1's in one of my previous posts. Making sure you communicate is essential to ensuring that you and your TTB are aligned on priorities and agree on who needs to do what. Ideally, try to meet your TTB every week or at least organize a regular cadence of meetings that are on both your calendars. The more often you're able to meet, the better your communication, the more you'll be aligned on priorities and the less likely there will be misunderstandings. Your impulse may be to avoid or spend as little time as possible with your TTB, but the reality is that the more time you spend communicating and aligning with them, the better off you'll be.
3. Focus on Agreements not Expectations. Whether it's during your 1-1's, staff meetings or using other channels of communication, you need to ensure that you and your TTB "agree" on what the priorities are, when they are due and who owns what. In my previous experience with one TTB I had in Brazil, I would even document our agreements after meetings and send those via email. Paper trails are always helpful in case there are misunderstandings. Always avoid ambiguity and when there is doubt, get things clarified. It's when people have different expectations that you're most likely to get into trouble. Unclear expectations are also more likely to trigger TTB's who are prone to tantrums as well. I would also suggest you very carefully document your agreements with you TTB and keep both a personal and professional record of these agreements. If things ever turn sour and you have no other way than to take the issue to HR (see below), you'll want to have things as carefully documented as possible.
"When working for a Toxic, Tyrant boss always focus on creating agreements as opposed to managing expectations." (click to Tweet)
4. Be a problem solver not a problem bringer. This is a general rule of thumb when managing upwards whether you have a TTB or not. As a manager, I always prefer when people come to me with a problem, present multiple solutions and recommend a particular course of action. That shows me that my reports have really thought through the issues, considered alternatives and have a clear point of view on what needs to be done. This is particularly important with a TTB since it also gives him / her the opportunity to give their own opinion, make the actual decision and feel needed and appreciated. For TTB's with big egos, which we have aplenty in the Valley, "stroking" their ego is a good way to make them feel good about themselves, important and useful.
5. Understand your TTB's priorities. Again, as a rule of thumb you should always try to understand your boss priorities and see how they align with what you're working on. This is even more true with TTB's. By understanding their priorities you can better shift your time, anticipate where they might be feeling pressure and proactively bring them solutions. If at all possible, it's also good to try and understand how their work priorities align with their personal priorities. This can give you an indication of why they might be overreacting in certain situations. For example, maybe organizing the logistics around a particular event doesn't seem important to you but it's important to your TTB because they need to look good in front of a key client whose contract is up for renewal. Maybe getting flowers for their partner doesn't feel urgent until you realize they are on the verge of divorce!
"Maybe getting flowers for the partner of your Toxic, Tyrant boss doesn't feel urgent until you realize they are on the verge of a divorce!" (click to Tweet)
6. Ask questions and listen. Asking enough questions is awesome because it serves multiple purposes. First, it ensures you both agree on what's important and avoids the problems that arise when expectations are different for each party. Second, it validates the importance of your TTB's opinion and makes them feel useful and/or important and lastly, it helps you actively listen and understand what matters to your TTB and what their underlying motivations might be. Finally, you're more likely to learn something and less likely to say something that triggers them if you ask questions.
7. Stay cool. This is even more important when you have big ego, highly extroverted bosses who are prone to throw tantrums. My father was a senior exec and board member in large companies and both his personal assistants and my mother in law learned one very important thing managing him: When he blows up, just sit back, take it and let him rage. If you appear as a sea of calm and stay cool, their anger will eventually run out of steam. Since people often don't watch what they say when they vent, you might even get a better understanding of their underlying motivations and what's triggering them. This is also particularly important in a public setting where others are observing how you handle the situation. Always stay professional. In addition, in a post on Psychology Today, Llynn Taylor, author of Terrible Office Tyrant, adds: "Inject rational thinking into the conversation, create a distraction, ideally to more positive subjects, take ownership for anything you might have done wrong, and keep your conversation as short as possible."
"Staying cool is even more important when you have big ego, highly extroverted bosses" (click to Tweet)
8. User humor. This one isn't obvious and you have to be very careful when and how you use it, but humor can be helpful to put a bit of a positive spin on bad situations and lighten up the mood. If you have a good idea of your TTB's sense of humor and what might make them laugh you can use this to diffuse the situation and break the ice.
9. Give them credit, even if they don't really deserve it. This might be a tough one to stomach but if your TTB has a big ego, going out of your way to give them partial credit for things you're doing and making them look good generally feeds their ego and can help you be on their good side. Be careful to not overdo it since you risk appearing insincere and also watch how you do this in public since it can put you at odds with others who might see this as brown nosing.
10. Network. Networking is always a good thing to do to build your reputation, improve your collaboration with others and increase your understanding of the business. When you work with a TTB it's even more important. You want to ensure people have a solid understanding of who you are, what you're doing and the quality / professionalism of your work. If things get bad enough with your TTB, having a strong network can be the difference between surviving getting thrown under the bus and being road kill. It can also provide you other alternatives for in case you've hit a wall and need to consider alternative job options (see my post Jumping Ship).
"Having a strong network can mean the difference between surviving getting thrown under the bus and being roadkill." (click to Tweet)
11. Get a life outside of work. It sounds obvious but some of the most devoted people I've ever seen work for TTB's and have no life outside work. The implications are that when you have a miserable day and things blow up, your entire world simply collapses. Having the proper balance in your life of sleeping well, eating healthy, being with friends or loved ones and having other interests is fundamental in everyone's life but this is even more true when working for TTB's. So train for a marathon, chair your kid's PTA, do volunteer work or go for a run. Your sanity and physical well being may depend on it.
"So train for a marathon, chair your kid's PTA, do volunteer work or go for a run. Your sanity and physical well being may depend on it." (click to Tweet)
12. Get HR involved. People have often asked me whether they should just take the issue to HR. It' not always that simple and you really have to understand the lay of the land before you do this. If you've tried all the above and nothing seems to be working, this may be your last recourse. Before doing that, however, I would do the following:
Make sure you've tried to talk with your TTB directly about how you feel. If you don't, he/she could feel betrayed and upset that you didn't try to discuss it beforehand with them directly. As a manager, I've had people go to HR about something they were unhappy about and I was very upset they didn't approach me first. That said, I have never been considered to be a TTB either!
Try and see if there are others who feel the same way. Your case with HR will be much more more compelling if several people approach them citing the same issue and you work as a team. If there is a history of bad behavior, that also helps your case. However, if there is a history of people who have complained and nothing has been done then clearly there is a reason. In that case you either have to put up or move out (not necessarily out of the company but maybe out of that department).
Understand how strong your TTB's position is politically. If they are really well liked, successful and key to the business your position is much more difficult and the organization will likely turn a blind eye to the incident (remember that sadly HR is there to support the company first and individuals second). If there other peers who have it out for them or if they've been struggling with similar issues across multiple teams you have a stronger case.
Nobody likes to have a Toxic Tyrant for a boss, but it does happen. The good news is that plenty of people survive and some even thrive from the experience. Never forget that in the end, "it's just a job." There are always opportunities to go and explore new options and surviving a TTB can provide a rich learning experience which, while tough, will make you a better professional overall.
For more insights and discussion, be sure to follow me on Linkedin and Twitter and catch my vcasts on YouTube. Good luck and stay cool!
Got a TTB story to share? Comment below!