Seeing Them a Mile Away

How do I know I am working under a toxic boss? Just as it is seen in domestic violence, abuse in the workplace sometimes is unrecognizable by those who are caught in the fray. As I have spoken with numerous parachurch employees, I have noticed that some continue to believe their boss is a sinner “just like” they are. They attribute broken thoughts and feelings to their bosses that are similar to their own. They have self-awareness of their own failings, and they think all professing Christians are pretty much the same.

However, scripture does not suggest everyone is in the same boat in regards to their relational sin. Have you ever read the “imprecatory Psalms?” Many Christians simply explain them away because they are uncomfortable with the “judgmentalism” found in them. Consider this section from Psalm 55:9-11 –

Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its marketplace.

Pretty strong words from King David. Some commentators agree and suggest this kind of prayer was appropriate only for God’s anointed king or is just a stepping stone to more mature thinking.

However, I would agree with Vos, who suggests, “The total destruction of evil…is the prerogative of the sovereign God, and it is right not only to pray for the accomplishment of this destruction, but even to assist in effecting it when commanded to do so by God himself.”[1]

So, how do we identify a toxic boss? In my reading, I have found many helpful indicators of abusive behavior that are often common to both emotional abuse at home and in the office:

  1. When discussing differences of opinion with subordinates, the boss exhibits very little approachability or humility.
  2. The supervisor will rarely, if ever, admit failure, either in matters of sin or decision-making.
  3. The boss lies about decisions he has made. Bacal says, “Decisions and direction can change suddenly and without apparent rationale.”[2]
  4. The boss frequently manipulates his subordinates.
  5. The boss frequently demeans or expresses anger at subordinates.
  6. The boss isolates those who disagree with him by untruthfully suggesting coworkers of the employee are in agreement with the boss.
  7. The boss takes credit for or discredits your work.

Depending on the consistency of some, or all, of these relational behaviors of the boss, the employee may determine, imperfectly, whether the supervisor is truly toxic. To establish if these behaviors are common to a boss, it is necessary to be in settings where the supervisor has the opportunity to act in these ways or the employee must have reliable information from others who have experienced them.

Once toxicity is determined it is time to consider what needs to be done. If you have gotten free from a toxic boss, tell us your story and how you have found healing.

[1] Vos, Johannes Geerhardus. “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms.” The Westminster Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (May 1942).

[2] R. Bacal, “Toxic Organizations – Welcome To The Fire Of An Unhealthy Workplace.”

One thought on “Seeing Them a Mile Away

  1. There may be two different kinds of toxic leadership. One may be described as “benign” and the other “malignant”.

    Benign toxic leadership, which I experienced over a longer period of time, was characterized by indicators 1-3 and 7. It initially resulted in deep frustration and eventually disengagement. Any attempted engagement with the leader and his leadership was always muted. Ultimately, I felt that the only course for my emotional, mental, and spiritual health was to leave the organization.

    The other kind of toxic leadership I call malignant because it is more directly abusive. Indicators 4-6 come more into play. The leader is verbally and emotionally–if not physically–attacking the follower. In my brief experience of the malignant variety the leader, who was on his national turf and I was an expat, actually threatened to call the police and have me arrested.That felt traumatic.

    The bottom line in both cases was that I felt that I had to leave the situations. My perception was that both leaders were deeply insecure about themselves.

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