27 September 2023

Careering under control: How to cope with a toxic manager

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May Busch* says there are many kinds of managers, but the worst is the one who actively sabotages a career in which case doing nothing is not an option.

What kind of manager do you have?

Are they supportive? Do they provide you with opportunities to learn and grow?

Perhaps they’re too busy to focus on your career, or mostly focused on their own?

Hopefully you don’t have the worst kind: A manager who is actively sabotaging your career.

It hurts to have this kind of manager. They can make your life miserable every day and even make you feel depressed.

Whether you react with anger and frustration or start to withdraw and even doubt your own abilities, it can be hard to figure out what to do about it.

Here are three strategies that can improve your situation.

Do a Reality Check:

A useful starting point is to get grounded in reality.

When I’m upset about a situation, it’s hard to see things from any perspective other than my own.

It’s hard to see the difference between their intention and the impact it’s having on you.

Have others had a similar experience or are you the only one who’s having this issue with your manager?

People who have worked with your manager in the past may have some useful observations to make.

When you approach others, make sure you do so in a neutral way in case they are close to your manager.

At a minimum, you may discover you are not alone, which can make a big difference in how you feel.

Ideally, you may get some actionable advice that works with your manager.

What has your manager said or done, and what are alternative interpretations from the one you have assumed to be true?

What is the ‘world view’ that your manager holds and how is that different from yours?

What do you see when you put yourself in your manager’s shoes?

How can you pressure test your assumptions?

Do you want to stay in this role or on this path? Is this your dream job but it’s just your manager that’s making you miserable?

Or maybe this is a job you like but don’t love, one that you’re doing just to pay the bills or because it’s ‘safe’?

Your answer to “what do I really want?” will inform how hard to work at making things work with your manager.

Focus on What You Can Do:

When you feel you have no control over a situation, it’s easy to feel helpless and fall into a victim mindset.

You start to take things personally, and before long, it affects your feelings of self-worth.

Few things help you feel better about a situation than taking action.

So, to break out of this negative cycle, think about what you can do on your own without anyone else’s permission.

For example, you could talk to your manager.

That’s when the clarity on what you want is helpful.

Make sure you’re prepared to talk about the situation in a mature and professional way.

I like to get input from my mentors and sponsors to help me prepare.

What would you like to have happen in this situation?

What are the one or two changes that would make the situation manageable for you?

This will help you get clear on what you’re really after so you can start negotiating for that change.

Also, strengthening your network will help you land on your feet no matter what happens around you.

‘Fire’ Your Manager:

Once you’ve taken all the actions you can take, it may be time to ‘fire’ your manager if things still don’t improve.

The only way to do this is to leave.

This is a big decision and not to be taken lightly.

Early on in my career, I got this advice from my office-mate as she listened to me say (yet again) that I wanted to quit.

“May, you aren’t allowed to quit until you’ve tried to make it work on your terms but found you can’t”.

So before you quit or give up, it may be worthwhile to go through the second step one more time.

Once you decide to make a move, make it a priority to find a great manager as you look for your next role.

Managers have tremendous influence over our careers, and for much of your career, you’ll be both a manager and the managed.

When you have a manager who is sabotaging your career, take heart. You are not alone.

Take the time you need to step back and assess the realities, advocate for yourself, engage others to help you, and when necessary, be prepared to find a better landing place where your talents can be valued.

When you’re in the manager’s seat, remember to use your powers for good not evil.

Examine your actions for when you may inadvertently be sabotaging your team members.

Be open to adapting and growing. Create a safe space for people to share their thoughts and perspectives with you and each other.

Be that awesome manager you wish you’d had.

Which of these strategies can you use to improve your situation or help someone else improve theirs?

* May Busch helps leaders and their organisations achieve their full potential. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on May’s blogsite

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