Can High-Performing Employees Trigger Toxic Bosses?

When you’re doing well, and are a “self-starter,” you sometimes can get a sense that not everyone is thrilled with you. You’re sent the message that doing your work well and on time is what the boss wants, but then you wonder that maybe that’s notwhat he or she wants after all. If there’s not at least one thing for the boss to be critical of, will he or she nitpick or invent something to criticize?

An article I saw in Forbes last week about workplace toxicity suggests it’s still thriving at many companies. To me, workplace toxicity means a need to be reflexively critical, even when there is little to nothing to criticize. When there is nothing substantial to be critical of, bosses prone to toxicity become confused about how to assert authority. When you have toxic tendencies, you also usually have a need to be an authority and assert dominance. What’s more, I’ve noticed that the toxic need to be critical in order to show authority and dominance isn’t evenly distributed. It’s harder for some bosses to accept that there’s little to criticize in women and minority employees than in Caucasian male employees. 

As part of management and leadership training, it might be beneficial to have a segment on how to be the boss of high-performing employees. Much of manager training is focused on encouraging employees to greatness, and taking action when employees are not able to be great. But how do you express, and implement, leadership when you have an employee who doesn’t need to be managed? Should you be hyper-critical until you find something insignificant that isn’t perfect, and then blow that slight imperfection out of proportion so you have something to manage? After all, the manager might reason, there’s no such thing as perfect—there’s always room for improvement.

My suggestion would be to train managers to take a cue from high-performing, self-starter employees and act as a mentor and work friend, rather than as a boss figure. If an employee is a star, let him or her be, rather than feeling an insecure compulsion to find a flaw you can assert authority to correct.

 A key aspect of manager and leadership development is teaching bosses how to read the needs of employees, meaning understanding how each employee likes to be led. If you have a high-performing employee, who also is a self-starter, and you impose an authoritative leadership style on him or her, you may find that employee withdraws from the boss and becomes resentful. On the other hand, another high-performing employee may not be as much of an independently working self-starter and may crave an authoritative boss. It’s important for managers to be trained to know the difference between these two types of star employees. The latter will come to the boss for consultation on matters big and insignificant, while the former will take joy in coming up with ideas, and then taking a leap and following their own instincts to get the work done on their own.

The other factor that feeds into toxic bosses is insecurity. In addition to understanding the leadership needs of self-starting, high-performing employees, a boss who wants to remain non-toxic needs to be secure enough to acknowledge that some employees may not need his or her help as an authority figure. The boss may be a valuable mentor and work friend, but some employees are competent, responsible, and independent-minded enough that an authority figure boss is nothing more than an annoyance. Is there a way to train leaders to be secure in themselves? I don’t know that there is, so perhaps that should be one of the criteria for promotion into a leadership role. Behind every toxic boss is an insecure person who is only able to feel secure by being overbearing and hyper-critical. There are personality assessments to determine the kinds of job roles people are most likely to excel at, but how do you assess self-security? I would be curious to know whether assessments have been developed to determine how self-secure a person is. What are traits of insecure people, so Human Resources and training specialists know when to recommend that an individual not be promoted into a leadership role?

How do you prevent toxic leadership in your organization? Are there learning and development courses that can teach managers how to read the leadership needs of employees, so a heavy-handed approach is not taken when it would be counterproductive?