Q: My boss’ attitude is toxic to company culture. What can I do?
A: There is little doubt that the attitudes of our co-workers can have a significant effect on our own attitudes, well-being and company culture. And when the co-worker is our supervisor the impact is even more severe. Recently, my colleagues and I conducted research across four different industries and found that one of the most common reasons employees lose commitment at work is negative perception of management. Similarly, Gallup has reported that up to 70% of variance in employee engagement is because of one’s direct supervisor.
One of the first things to come to mind when considering this question is the need to corroborate the nature of the problem. Decades of research in social and cognitive psychology has shown that people perceive reality in self-serving ways. Similarly, research has shown that people blame the internal characteristics of a person (e.g., bad attitude) as a cause of a person’s bad behavior more than they should. And employees are often unaware of the pressures or constraints their boss may be facing. Therefore, you should consult with trusted colleagues (who are likely to be candid) to discern if your perception of the boss’ bad attitude is shared by others.
If others share this view of the boss’ attitude, there are several possible ways to proceed. Direct confrontations or accusations toward those in positions of power often don’t end well for those with less power, so it is important to proceed very carefully (always be respectful). I recently heard the following quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I think this is good advice as a place to begin. One way to do this is ask curious, nonthreatening questions. This can be a catalyst for finding ways to help your boss deal with stressful issues they may be confronting — this could dramatically change the relational dynamics you’re experiencing.
Of course, if the boss is chronically abusive or toxic, then discussing the issue with HR is warranted. If you don’t feel safe doing this, or if you feel the issue won’t be taken seriously by upper management, then it may be time to find another place to work.
Chad Brinsfield is an associate professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.