A toxic boss can totally dismantle a workplace culture. They can shatter employee morale and destroy productivity and performance. Of course, toxic bosses come in all shapes and sizes — though it's usually pretty easy to spot one.
If you're working for a toxic boss, chances are that you know. But what if you are the toxic boss? It's not always as easy to look inward and ask yourself if you're managing effectively or if you're the bad boss about whom everyone else complains. And, if you are, it may be even more difficult to accept that and learn how to change your ways.
So we asked self-proclaimed former toxic bosses how they were able to recognize their bad behaviors and change them. Here's what they had to say.
1. Be a leader.
"I was a bad boss in that I didn't give my team the guidance that they need," says Ryann Dowdy. "After having been micro-managed for years, I was determined to not do that to my team. In turn, I think I left them out to dry. I didn't give them guidance or structure. I became a check-in point in their day and the person they called to get deals done, but I really don't think I took the time to make them better at their jobs. I set expectations but wasn't clear about them and didn't follow up with them well. I managed the results, not the people. And in turn, burned people out and got a lot of mediocre work."
It wasn't until Dowdy started his own business and hiring a team that he realized that, while no one wants to be micromanaged, they want to know the expectations of their job.
"They want to be guided, coached, led, managed — not left to figure it out on their own," he says.
2. Be human.
"In 2010, I was managing my own business—I had a team of 13 employees who helped me to make sure everything was smooth," says Stella Samuel, the team manager at Brandnic. "Since it was the first time being a boss, I thought to myself that I was supposed to be harsh and toxic to the employees; I needed optimum results. I switched to be toxic, though it wasn’t my true character. After two years, I realized my business wasn’t doing as well as expected. I decided to change the way I handled my employees. Seven months after being friendly and very close to my employees, I started seeing a positive change in my business. From there, I realized that being a toxic boss is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life."
3. Be calm, cool and collected.
"I developed a habit of stressing out openly, in front of my employees," says Luka Arezina, co-founder of DataProt. "We were very close, and we knew each other in personal life before starting work together, so I thought that was alright. I was just being me, an extrovert that likes to share the internal processes, whether good or bad. One day, a dear coworker of mine started hyperventilating when we discovered a major technical glitch on our website. She had to leave work because she got so stressed. I naively asked why she was taking this so hard — it will be alright after we take the needed steps, to which she responded that she got anxious about how I will react."
Arezina says he was "totally, utterly oblivious of the fact that [his] openly stressing out was stressing the rest of the team that much."
"I took this lesson hard, feeling quite crappy about myself for a few days," he says. "But I decided to get the grip and stop stressing my employees out. Now I keep the worries to myself. I learned to play cool. I taught myself how to be the buffer for my employees and to give them confidence and a sense of security, instead of additional pressure brought out by my personality."
4. Be an example.
"I was never a tyrant/super bad boss; I was just a boss who was young, doing my best, mostly liked, and who encouraged some really unhealthy behaviors," says Shannon Howard, a content producer at The Predictive Index. "I used to manage a team of 20 full-time and part-time employees — all remote. The team was really hardworking, naturally motivated and driven to achieve. I noticed the team kept working nights and weekends so I had a conversation with them about how that wasn't the expectation, to shut down their computers at the end of the day and learn how to unplug. I kept reiterating that to no avail. Finally, one of my employees sat me down and said, 'You're the cause of this. You can't come in and lecture people about working nights and weekends when you're emailing people at 11 o'clock at night. Unless you change your pattern, this is going to be the result.'"
That was a wake-up call for Shannon, she says.
"I didn't connect that what I was saying and what I was modeling for my team was different," she says. "At that point, I didn't have much choice about how long I was working, so I just started drafting emails and saving them in my drafts folder until work hours started the following day. After a while, the team started feeling more comfortable taking evenings off. Those little things matter! My team really liked me, but I was unintentionally driving them into the ground by modeling unhealthy work boundaries — and then blaming them for not doing what I was telling them to do."
5. Be engaged.
"My management experience started in a fast-food restaurant and, before long, I was the lead training manager at a call center — I've switched to the remote workforce since that time, but many of the lessons I learned stuck around," says Frank Spear, content marketer at RafflePress. "When I first started as a manager, I made the mistake of listening to many of my past employers and assumed that management should oversee the operations, not play an active role. I found that when you stay out of the way, you build friction between your team because it feels like you're talking from totally different points of view. Getting your hands dirty and working through some of the day-to-day processes will make you a better leader."
6. Be communicative.
"I don’t think anyone would have called me a 'bad boss,' but maybe an absentee one," says Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building. "For years, I worked solo as a freelancer and had a very 'I’ll figure it out' approach to work. When I started building a company and hiring employees, I assumed they would operate the same, and so I didn’t do much in the way of engagement. The most popular channel of communication was one dedicated to nitpicking, where I would add small suggestions without acknowledging that the large part of the work was done well. After a team satisfaction survey, I realized this approach wasn’t the best for our company, so I made an effort to do more team calls and also to create a channel for praise. Now we have a #you-are-awesome channel where anyone can praise each other for achievements both large and small."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.