Toxic leaders infiltrate all types of organizations and hurt every person they encounter. It may be easy to spot a toxic leader depending on their behaviors. Other times, it may be more difficult, particularly if the leader is manipulative.

Understanding the traits of toxic leaders is crucial as it empowers you to identify and navigate their influence in the workplace. This guide will help you comprehend their characteristics, their impact on the workplace, and how to effectively work with them.

Traits of Toxic Leaders

Toxic leaders may present with a wide variety of toxic traits and behaviors, and no two will act exactly alike. However, many behaviors show up time and again. Here is a look at five of the most common characteristics of toxic leaders.

1. Quick to Place Blame

A good leader will admit when they are wrong. On the other hand, toxic leaders often have a tough time doing this. They will point the finger at someone else anytime they feel criticized or threatened. They will deflect attention away from their mistakes as often as possible and are quick to throw others under the bus.

2. Micromanaging

Employees are most productive when they have some freedom to work autonomously. When leaders micromanage, they diminish the employees’ confidence in their work. Micromanagement also breeds resentment among workers, as the leader conveys that they do not trust their employees to be successful independently.

3. Using Fear

Employees work to their highest potential when they are inspired by loyalty and trust. Toxic leaders often use fear instead, threatening their employees and placing unrealistic expectations on them. These leaders do not trust others to work without the constant fear of losing their jobs or being punished somehow.

4. Arrogance

Toxic leaders are often arrogant and narcissistic, believing they are the only ones who can perform a job correctly. They will not consider points of view or opinions other than their own. They are also unable to accept constructive criticism and often become defensive or angry if questioned in any way.

5. Acting Two-Faced

Toxic leaders often portray themselves in different ways to different people. They may act kind and generous in front of their boss, then turn on their employees when no one is watching. Or they may act overly friendly with some employees while bullying others. Good leaders behave consistently in all their interactions.

Signs You Are Working with a Toxic Leader

Some toxic leaders excel at manipulating workers and making them question themselves. Identifying a toxic boss or workplace can be challenging when this occurs. Here are five signs that signal you are working in a toxic environment.

1. Everyone is Unhappy

If you find yourself unhappy in a job, but most of your coworkers are very content, the workplace is likely, not toxic, but the job is just not right for you. On the other hand, if you notice that other employees complain excessively about coming to work or quit often, you are likely under the control of a toxic leader.

2. Your Insight is Ignored

Good leaders welcome everyone’s point of view and know that accepting feedback is critical to managing successfully. Toxic leaders shut down any opinions that are not their own. If you find that your manager is not open to ideas you and your coworkers presented, you are likely working for a toxic leader.

3. You Are Given Unrealistic Expectations

The best leaders set their employees up for success. Toxic leaders put unrealistic expectations on their workers and don’t allow them the chance to succeed in their jobs. If you find yourself working harder and harder and never making any headway, you may be working for a toxic leader. Pay attention to whether your coworkers are drowning in work as well.

4. Criticism is Given Publicly

If you find your manager criticizing you or other coworkers publicly, you can rest assured that they are a toxic leader. While constructive criticism is an important part of a leader’s job, it should be given respectfully. Criticizing your work in front of others is done to humiliate and bully, which is unacceptable behavior.

5. Boundaries are Not Respected

It is reasonable to set expectations for employees, but a toxic leader will often overstep boundaries repeatedly. Everyone deserves a healthy work-life balance, but toxic leaders frequently demand that employees prioritize work over family and personal life.

How to Navigate a Toxic Workplace

Working for a toxic leader is exhausting and can take a real toll on your mental health. There are some things you can do to protect yourself. Here are five ways to navigate a toxic workplace.

1. Clarify Expectations

A toxic boss may provide instructions on how to perform your job and then change their mind and hold you accountable. One way to protect yourself is to get instructions and workplace expectations in writing whenever possible. You could ask your boss to follow up a conversation with an email so that you have documentation of the directions you received.

2. Know Your Worth

Toxic leaders count on their workers to feel intimidated and incompetent. One way to protect yourself is to recognize your worth as an employee and a human being. Understand that your boss’s behavior is a reflection of who they are, not of yourself. Often, toxic leaders have low confidence in themselves and rely on making others feel bad to divert attention away from their weaknesses.

By remaining confident, you can reduce a toxic boss’s power. This puts you in a better position to take action, such as going to HR, writing a complaint, or even finding a new job if the situation warrants it.

3. Do Your Job to the Best of Your Ability

Working for a toxic leader can remove much of the motivation to excel in your job. However, if you stop putting in the effort, your boss will have more ammunition to use against you. Performing your job properly, even under trying circumstances, will make it more difficult for a boss to target you. It will also give you more leverage if you approach your boss or go elsewhere for support.

4. Look for the Good

Working in a toxic environment can cause feelings of depression and intense anxiety. You may not be able to change your boss’ behaviors, but you do have some control over your attitude. Even the worst workplace often has a redeeming characteristic or two. Perhaps there is a coworker you enjoy seeing, or you find satisfaction in completing a particular task. If nothing else, you are earning a paycheck.

5. Get Help When You Need It

If your boss is bullying or discriminating, you have grounds to bring up a formal complaint. Know your resources. Review company policies and talk to someone you trust in HR. Know that you have some recourse if your boss oversteps certain lines.

Final Thoughts

Working for a toxic leader is a trying experience. Recognize the signs of toxic leadership so you can plan how to protect yourself and your job. Following the guidelines for navigating a toxic workplace discussed in this article will empower you and give you the confidence to stand up to a toxic leader.