How to Survive Toxic Leadership at the Workplace

Arvind Mehrotra
5 min readAug 8, 2023

Toxic leadership is an unfortunate reality in most workplaces. An SHRM study found that, according to 84% of US employees, poorly trained managers add unnecessary work and stress to their lives. Toxic leaders can cause unhealthy work environments, making it difficult to be productive or grow. So, how can employees navigate this and map their leaders in the model given below?

Toxic situations make you feel unhappy, drained, or exploited. They can occur in any area of your life, such as relationships or at work. Some signs of a toxic situation are:

· You feel constantly criticized or judged by others

· You give more than you receive, making you feel devalued, consistently disrespected, or your needs are unmet.

· You experience physical or verbal abuse

· You feel manipulated or controlled by others

· You feel isolated or excluded from others

These are some examples of toxic situations and how to identify them.

How can you, a talented professional, navigate toxic leadership and come out on the winning side? Here are a few valuable recommendations:

1. Formulate an action plan for your well-being

Sometimes, it is impossible to leave a toxic work environment; but to counter its effects, you can refocus on your well-being. It could be taking time for meditation or exercise. Investing in self-development and learning is also an excellent way to ensure that you feel empowered. One of the critical traits of toxic leaders is that they take away our sense of autonomy. A proactive plan for your well-being will help counter this.

2. Reflect and learn

Our first reaction to toxic leadership is often frustration and anger. However, we only direct these negative emotions to ourselves without an outlet for this in the workplace. Instead, take the time to reflect on the leader’s actions and see if there are any learnings to glean from them. How does the toxic leader maintain a position of control and power? Is it possible to build your network to counter this? Reflection will also tell you the common triggers that get a reaction out of us and how to avoid them.

3. Be definitive about your boundaries

Toxic leaders will have a lot of sway in the workplace and may try to extend its scope as much as possible. Setting and enforcing firm limits via workplace policies and rules is a good idea. For example, if out-of-hours availability is discouraged in your organization, refer to this practice and log out at the stipulated hour. Communicate your boundaries clearly — like when you have too much work on your plate –often.

4. Document the leader’s actions

It isn’t to share or raise a complaint (since that can have adverse implications). But documenting the signs of toxic leadership can help you distance yourself between an employee and the manager as another worker. You will also find different patterns of behaviour that help you navigate toxic leadership better.

5. Create and participate in workplace communities

It is important to remember that there are other individuals in your immediate work environment, even though a toxic leader often has the most decisive impact. A tight-knit, reliable workplace community can respite during stress and low motivation. Remember that this is not a forum for complaint or grievance sharing; workplace communities are essential to our holistic well-being. It helps reinforce the notion that a leader is merely another cog in the professional engine and does not define your entire employee experience or worth.

6. Avoid conflict while growing

Eventually, toxic leaders in the lower management levels rotate to different departments to reduce complaints, where they are more suited to do the work, or employees find new opportunities either laterally or in another organization and leave their work environment. But until that happens, you must avoid conflict and finish the job. Develop your skills to do the work efficiently and mostly without errors. In the meantime, participate in workshops and professional meets in your region to ensure new opportunities come your way.

7. Learn to recognize toxic leadership

Finally, employees need to recognize toxic leadership before it is too late — i.e., it damages your productivity, causes a major conflict, or brings down your professional reputation. The first sign of toxic leaders is that they often create a culture of fear that does not encourage psychological safety. They are less open to communication and may indulge in gossip or rumour-mongering. Toxic leaders are also more prone to bias and often give demotivating advice.

Once you recognize toxic leadership, you can take concrete steps to survive and thrive in such environments. Employees who prove themselves invaluable to the team, are great problem solvers, and bring unique skills to the table tend to be immune to the adverse effects of toxic leadership.

Eventually, such leaders must change course and hone leadership styles that encourage the team. Meanwhile, as an employee, focus on upskilling and network building so you can succeed in any team environment.

Are you struggling with toxin leadership? Tell me about your experiences in the comments below, or email me at Arvind@am-pmassociates.com.

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Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Strategy, Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor