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How to Survive and Thrive with a Toxic Boss

For many years, my daughter has pushed on me to watch the tv show “The Office” with her. She loves the program but the few clips I had seen made it tough to have any interest. I finally relented, after my wife gave in and watch the entire series, and must say that I’m hooked. There are many unique dynamics to this show but I am amazed at how well they satirize, and actually get quite right, the lousy leader. If you’ve watch the show, you know that Michael Scott is a disaster as the office leader. He thinks he is really efficient but often is pulling his employees away from what needs to get done. He won’t make a decision, unless it is a poor one, and often is dishonest. However, Michael believes his employees love him. In truth, Michael is a toxic boss.

Perhaps you’ve worked with your own version of Michael. In my lifetime, I have worked with those who really were not great in a leadership role and it really damaged the morale of the entire team. In education, we can’t afford to have toxic leaders in influential roles. Afterall, we are talking about work with kids. I won’t describe my toxic bosses (I could name three of them) in detail, but rather will share a few tips I learned and utilized to both survive and thrive under their watch.

    1. Stay focused on what you can control – if you work with someone who can be rather unpredictable, it gets quite frustrating. The toxic boss may push blame your direction, give you only negative feedback, or continually change what they are looking for on a given project. While you cannot control their behaviors or decision making process, you can control your own focus. The truth is, the only thing you have any control of is yourself. Stay dialed in on your responsibilities and do your very best with them.
    2. Look for a mediator – if the toxic boss is your immediate supervisor but not at the top of the chain of command, you can look for support from their supervisor. This can be tricky, so navigate it carefully. If the relationship exists for you to have the open door to the next one in line, start with a simple conversation focused on you and how you are struggling. This could possibly lead to a meeting with you and your boss, with someone mediating the conversation. There are so many school leaders who are new to their role that they may not even know their behaviors are toxic.
    3. Take care of your people – as a fan of The Office, I see the work the Jim Halpert does to deflect and redirect Michael. Jim is working hard to take care of the people in the office. Understand this, taking care of them and commiserating with them are not the same thing. Being a person who listens and supports is what most people need. While we all can benefit from a good venting (or trip to the local watering hole for ‘happy hour’), be cautious with this because venting can quickly become a tornado of negativity. Those will not help anyone. Be the strong leader who supports those who need it. It is surprisingly cathartic when done consistently.
    4. Lean on your network – perhaps you are a school leader who is on an island (flying solo at your site). This can be so lonely and isolating. Lean on the other principals in your district (if possible) and your connections through social media. There are many different groups for school and district leaders with which to connect and get feedback. It helps to know that you are not the only one going through a particular situation. When you reach out and connect, others are more than willing to share their experiences and ways to move through and navigate the toxic boss.
    5.  Leave – this isn’t always the best option, but sometimes it is necessary. If your toxic boss is entrenched in the community and not close to retirement, waiting them out is probably not the best strategy you could use. We are at a very interesting crossroads in educational leadership right now, and opportunities to improve your situation are quite numerous. You don’t have to stay in a situation that is toxic, as it can (and will) eventually impact your health, your self-esteem, relationships, and so forth. Life is short, don’t spend it somewhere you are miserable.

Toxic bosses can take many different forms. Sometimes it is leadership from the top, like the superintendent. It could be the principal or assistant superintendent, but might even be an assistant principal. More and more frequently, school boards around the country are taking steps that are toxic to the district. A toxic board is a very tricky situation, as they are elected (or appointed) and will be difficult to outlast. The key, no matter who the toxic leader is, is to focus on what you are able to do from your position. Take care of yourself, those around you, and make attempts to rectify the situation. If it’s beyond repair, a change of work address isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes that new lease on life can re energize you and help you get reconnected with your passion for the work. If I can help or be a sounding board for you, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Take care of yourself and others,


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