When you work in employment law, you become an expert at recognizing the patterns that lead to problems in the workplace.
Nine times out of 10, the issues our clients face are the result of toxicity in their organization. And almost always, that toxicity started at the top and trickled down the chain of command until everyone on the team was miserable.
This pattern of trickle-down toxicity isn’t just reserved for the workplace. Whenever people are part of a hierarchy — be it a family or Kiwanis Club — the way people treat each other will be determined by the actions of those at the top.
And if we’re not careful, the actions of the people at the top can have a serious impact on our well-being.
Just ask my son.
“Basketball Comes First.”
In high school, my son lived and breathed basketball. Practice came before everything. He wouldn’t even think about homework until he had spent at least four hours at the gym.
If his grades suffered or he didn’t do well on a test, his excuse was always the same: “Coach says basketball comes first.”
My son’s coach had assured everyone on the team that if they worked hard, they would be rewarded with a spot on a premier college basketball team. If they worked really, really hard, they might even end up in the NBA.
Fast forward to my son’s senior year. After four years of “basketball comes first,” he was eager to reap the rewards of all his hard work.
But he never did. Even though the coach had made the same promise to everyone on the team, he only intended to keep it for a select few.
My son and many of his teammates had been left behind. Instead of meeting with college scouts or participating in conference calls with coaches, they were scrambling to come up with a Plan B for life after high school.
The Dangers of Bad Leadership
Some folks will read this and think: “Look, I’m sorry for those kids, but my company’s leadership doesn’t affect me. I’m just here for the paycheck.”
I get it. But there’s a lot more at stake here.
I can think of several bad leaders who brought their companies to financial ruin. I can think of others whose practices were so unscrupulous they ended up in jail — and brought their employees with them.
You might just be here for a paycheck. But if you’re blindly following an unethical leader, you may find yourself, at best, out of a job because the company no longer exists. Or, worse, being forced to justify your actions in court.
Here are three ways to evaluate the quality of the leadership in your office. By learning to recognize the signs of a bad boss, you can get ahead of the problem by either finding a new job or refusing to drink the toxic Kool-Aid.
Open Your Eyes
You can learn a lot about your office dynamics by looking at how others are being treated. Especially those at the top.
Now, I’m not talking about the clique of superstars in their corner offices who enjoy generous stock options, 401(k) matches and vacation packages.
I’m talking about the people who have been at the company for years, worked their tails off and proven their worth, but are still toiling away in middle management and sharing a cube in a crowded conference room.
Those are the people you need to pay attention to.
Throughout high school, my son idolized the super-talented seniors on his basketball team, the ones who were fielding offers from elite colleges and negotiating generous sports scholarships.
He was blind to the others, the seniors who had worked just as hard the past four years but lacked the innate talent of their elite teammates and thus were forced to face their future for the first time. Some had fortunately taken their schooling seriously enough to apply to colleges. Others drifted away to trade school or entered the workforce immediately after graduating.
My son had only focused on what he wanted to see. And he never saw the truth.
Be Wary of Overpromisers
Good leaders are great communicators. They’re honest. They understand everyone on their team is different. They foster each person’s individual strengths and, when necessary, help others recognize and improve their weaknesses.
Bad leaders only care about themselves. They pigeonhole people into a role that serves the company’s bottom line, not the individual’s talents. They don’t care about their team’s personal or professional development, unless it benefits them.
My son’s basketball coach was an expert manipulator. The bigger the promise he made to his students, the harder they worked. The harder they worked, the more competitions they won. The more competitions they won, the better the coach looked in the eyes of his bosses — the principal and superintendent.
If the coach truly cared about his students, he wouldn’t have made the same promise to everyone on the team. Sure, he should cultivate the skills in those with the most talent. But for the kids with bad knees and asthma, he should have nurtured the teamwork, communication and leadership skills that could be applied to any future.
Do They Live Their Mission?
Almost every company has a mission statement, a list of goals and values that, at least in theory, drive every corporate decision.
It’s probably hanging in the office breakroom. Go check it out. I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve read the list of buzzwords, ask yourself: Are any of them true?
Whenever my son’s coach met with parents, we got the same spiel. Family comes first. Then academics. Then basketball.
But when our kids missed a weekend practice because of a family vacation or left the gym early to study for their SATs, there was resistance. Sure, the students could have time for all the things that were important to them. As long as they practiced for four hours per day.
If your company says it values integrity but you know your boss takes shortcuts that lead to reduced customer satisfaction, that’s a sign something is amiss. If your company lists work-life balance as a value but you get a guilt trip every time you have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, pay attention.
What to Do If You Have a Bad Boss
Fortunately for the students at my son’s school, a group of parents contacted the principal about the coach’s misleading practices and he was eventually fired.
But in the workplace, we don’t have parents or a principal to advocate for us. It’s up to us to recognize the signs of bad leadership and protect ourselves accordingly.
This is easier said than done. Especially for people who have experienced trauma early in their lives or have been affected by abusive relationships. For some people, being in a toxic environment feels normal. In extreme cases, it might even feel good because it reminds us of our childhood or our situation at home.
Others may be afraid to speak up because they never learned how. Then there’s the fear that leaving the job will make their overall situation worse because they’ll lose their income. I’ve been there. I get it.
So what can you do? Get support — whether it’s from a professional like a therapist or employment law expert. Heck, sometimes a heart-to-heart with a good friend can give us the support and encouragement we need to make the best choice for our situation.
Your turn. Have you experienced toxicity in your workplace? How did you handle it?