This usually happens quite rarely. However, we all may have had the unfortunate experience in our careers, when we had to work with an over bearing manager, who spews hate, bullying and wielding unflinching power against a defenceless executive wanting to do decent work. Hence the defining term, Toxic Manager, and how can you spot one?

  • The department will show high attrition rates
  • Deputies are very compliant
  • Team members rarely speak out

One experience I had working with a toxic manager, based in Singapore, was the unfair bonding periods that were meted out. Making sure the cogs and the wheels turned to ensure operational work was not affected, we were given training bonds. Had we a choice, a lot of us would have resigned, but we stayed on then, to fulfil the requirements of the training bond. Imagine a 4 years training bond valued at $20,000, in 1994, for a flight operations course that lasted less then 3 months spread over 2 years.

It shocked me to witness one such Manager again. During a training session, the blend of activities that we initiated dramatically showed the Jekyll and Hyde personality, that crawled itself out. These were some specific behaviours that I observed;

  • When leaders were asked for during the activities, they were quick to nominate their stalwarts, but very quick to take over discussions and lead the initiatives in the planning phase before the activities were executed. The so called nominated “leader” was at best a compliant follower.
  • When you had to share your views, the style chosen by toxic leaders is confrontational and adversarial. They lack the ability to influence the team or show a sense of empathy that others were there to learn also. In this instance, the lack of ability to communicate as well was quite apparent.
  • In instances where leaders will usually want to take a back seat and let their team members take charge, they very much want to set the tone and direction for the team.
  • Interestingly team members usually avoid you and that becomes apparent during tea breaks and lunch, except for the carefully groomed deputy who will sit with you.
  • Lastly instead of having to look at what was best learnt, their takeaways are usually the dysfunctional moments and even for the positive outcomes, they will retrofit the experience to share the nastiness taking place in the organization.

If you are heading a department and you have the following signs, its a high chance you may be a “Toxic Manager”. The signs are;

  • Many resignations amongst your team
  • Young impressional executives who at best stay on to learn and you treat them terribly
  • Big bold trumpeted achievements by Toxic Manager , when examined very carefully will be just mediocre, since the organization lacks the ability to fact check the achievements, one is able to get away with a trumped statement that may not be true
  • You have a very compliant deputy, who rarely disagrees with you
  • You micro manage all aspects of the department

Organisations need to relook at their hiring policies, if they have recruited and force fed a Toxic Manager. Departmental leads should be recruited for their abilities to, lead, influence and develop their team. There is a time, situation and place for authoritative leadership. To use such an approach with a team will curtail executive development. 

After hiring and grooming such an individual over the years, they would have at best moulded this monster themselves. Toxic managers wield power that is nested on their ability to behave aggressively, make bold statements that are not fact checked and usually oversee functions that is critical and complex.

How best to manage such toxic managers? This will require organisational heads to yield their power cards to expect behavioural change.