Red flag: how to spot toxic management in an interview

Mar 17, 2021

7 mins

Red flag: how to spot toxic management in an interview
Cécile Pichon

Psychologue du travail, coach et consultante RH

The word “toxic” has been fashionable since even before Britney Spears sang about it. Back then, it was the toxic ex being talked about; now it’s the toxic manager. But can we say that a person is toxic in the absolute sense of the word? Isn’t it a bit hasty to classify the world into good guys and bad guys? And what defines the toxicity of one person compared to another? If a toxic substance acts like a poison, then it’s understandable that a “toxic” person is poisoning your life. That’s not ideal when you’re looking for a good manager. To avoid having to deal with a malicious superior, how can you detect problematic managerial practices during a job interview? Let’s take a look.

Did you say toxic?

The notion of toxic leadership was highlighted in 2005 by Jean Lipman-Blumen, a professor and co-founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Leadership at Claremont Graduate University in California. A leader can be considered toxic if they inflict serious and lasting harm on subordinates, particularly through the use of extremely harsh or malicious influencing tactics, according to Lipman-Blumen. However, the concept of toxicity is not widely used in social science research. So how can you explain it? From a psychological point of view, it’s not about toxic people as such, but about certain people who are experiencing difficulties or pathologies and who can have a harmful effect on the people around them and make life hard for them. It is the relationship that becomes poisonous.

Bad managerial practices impede an individual’s growth and development. These include giving non-constructive criticism, belittling or humiliating staff, making threats, or handing out punishment. Such practices curb progress and cause demotivation, stress, anxiety, and suffering at work. In the long term, this kind of behavior can lead to a real drop in the efficiency and well-being of employees at work, absenteeism, and a high staff turnover, at the very least. In short, the company dynamic suffers.

Bad manager or toxic manager?

There are bad managers, yes, but are they toxic? What is the difference? Be careful. Just because you don’t get on with a manager doesn’t mean that you can stick a “toxic” label on them. We need to be aware of the nuances. Yes, there are still a lot of bad managers out there. In some cases, it is because they did not get any training. In others, it is because they got insufficient training or were promoted into management positions in which they had no interest. According to a survey conducted for the Chartered Management Institute, 48% of managers hadn’t received any management training in the previous 12 months and 33% of companies did not offer any training at all. These figures raise certain questions given that we know that being a good manager is not an innate skill or trait. The two elements necessary for quality management are the desire to be a manager and the skills to do the job. If a manager does not have these, then the team being managed is likely to suffer.

If poor management affects the performance and well-being of the team being supervised, so-called “toxic” management goes even further. It is similar to the abusive and tyrannical management described by Bennett J Tepper, a doctor of organizational psychology at Ohio State University in the United States. Where a bad manager may find it difficult to delegate, may transfer stress to the team, or lack vision, the “toxic” manager is even more directly harmful. They use fear to extend their grip. They are inflexible or tyrannical. They seek to break or humiliate their staff or to lie or distort the truth—all with or without open hostility. Beyond the consequences on team performance, such management can quickly affect the motivation and self-esteem of the people who suffer under it. For Lipman-Blumen, such harmful management directly infringes on people’s rights. The difference between an incompetent superior and one who lacks ethics isn’t always immediately obvious. So it’s worth learning to read the signals.

The job interview: the signs of poisonous management

Since there are good and not-so-good managers, should you make sure you know what you’re getting into when you apply for a position? You certainly should. The most important thing is to take stock of your needs and expectations before investigating whether the team you want to join is the right one for you. Do you want autonomy or structure? Do you prefer encouragement or challenges? The job interview is also a valuable moment of exchange at which you can get information about the company, the team, the management, and how they work—and possibly detect dysfunctional practices. Here are a few tips to help with your investigation.

Spot the poisonous boss

There are many signs of poor management. Some of them can even be spotted during the job interview. A meeting with your potential manager can be an opportunity to get an idea of what awaits you and to anticipate the possible weaknesses of their management style. For example, you should be aware of the following:

  • How well they listen, their level of empathy: Does this manager seem capable of taking into account the needs and wishes of the team members? Of understanding your career path? Of seeing things from your perspective?

  • Ability to trust, to delegate: Does the manager know how to trust their team? Do they give them the space and the means to carry out their tasks? Or is the manager a control freak or a micro-manager? What management processes have they been able to put in place?

  • Vision, reliability, stress management: Does the manager know where they are headed? Do they seem reliable and stable? Do they know how to manage stress so as not to pass it on to their team? Management inconsistencies and mood swings can become problematic in the long term.

  • Ability to step back and question, and to be authentic: How does the potential manager talk about past or current mistakes and difficulties? Are they able to show vulnerability and accept their own limitations?

  • Integrity, honesty: Does the manager appear transparent and honest? Or do they show bad faith? What do they value in their work?

  • Respect for people, justice, and fairness: Do they speak negatively or in a demeaning way about former employees, customers, or other company departments? A good manager recognizes the good qualities in others, does not take ownership of other people’s work, and treats all team members equally.

Some questions you could ask the potential manager directly:

  1. What are the main qualities you expect from your future employees?
  2. What would my onboarding and training be like if I joined the team?
  3. Can you tell me a bit more about the team I might work with if I join the company?
  4. What makes you proud of your team? Which aspects do you expect improvement on?
  5. Could you tell me a little more about the processes set up within the team?
  6. How would you define your management style?
  7. What do you think will count as being successful in this position?

More generally, as you leave the interview, you may ask yourself how you felt during this meeting with the manager. Confident, at ease, intimidated, or even scared? A little stress is normal as you are being evaluated. However, you may wonder if you would feel able to work with this person every day. A person with a supportive management style should start to make you feel comfortable from the outset.

Fleeing toxic practices

Harmful management is often part of a broader framework of toxic practices that can be passed on by other members within the company. A system cannot stand without the support, even reluctantly, of some of its employees. That is something to explore—especially if you have the chance to meet several people from your potential future team during the recruitment process. Here are some harmful practices that you need to watch out for and avoid:

  • Divide and conquer: Some organizations promote excessive competition. Others apply preferential treatment—when they’re not pitting people against each other. All these practices promote inequality, a “divide and conquer” strategy that creates a harmful climate between teams and creates mistrust between people. How does teamwork seem to be organized within the company you are applying to? What are the values advocated by the company? How do employees talk about each other?

  • Taking credit for the work of others: Even if it is a widespread habit, this practice must be fought at all costs. How do more senior employees and managers talk about juniors and less qualified members of staff? If they’re condescending or disparaging towards them, run away.

  • The negative chain of stress: When management puts disproportionate stress on managers and they pass it on to their teams, the whole dynamic is undermined. Stress levels go up, throwing fuel on the fire in relationships and encouraging operational errors. On the contrary, positive managerial practices should protect teams from too much pressure. Do you feel the people you meet are stressed out or under pressure? What do they say about the pace of work and the type of challenges they face?

If you meet team members during the hiring process, you can ask them the following questions:

  1. What milestones will be important, in my position, to satisfy my manager?
  2. What do you think is the main challenge I would face if I joined the team?
  3. What makes this team strong? Why do you like working for this organization?
  4. How would you describe the spirit of the team?
  5. What is the main asset of your team? What would you like to improve?

Take the time to write down what these people have said about the management and how work is organized within the team. Do they seem fulfilled? Do they look like they’re under pressure? Can they express themselves freely or do they lack sincerity? Would you feel comfortable working with them? Don’t hesitate to trust your gut feeling. It can give you a lot of insight.

Pinpointing contaminated businesses

Bad management can originate in a structure that does not allow better behavior. A “toxic” manager is rarely alone in a company. They are tolerated by the organization, if not supported outright. These kinds of practices can be found at other levels within the organization, the bad manager being only one active piece of a harmful system. Newcomers find themselves trapped. A shift occurs and bad habits spread, reaching all layers of the company. It’s a vicious circle and the whole system is contaminated.

To help you to identify gangrenous companies, it is worth looking at staff turnover, which can be a good indicator as to what is happening internally. How long does the average employee stay with the company? What caused the last people to leave? There are other indicators of an unhealthy environment such as a lack of personal development opportunities, excessive working hours, or an unclear hierarchy. If you are in any doubt, contact some former employees to get their advice and some concrete feedback.

Be clear about your expectations and, if in doubt, run away!

A good manager-employee relationship is above all else about people, but there are harmful managerial practices that go beyond simple misunderstandings. Does that mean that it is toxic management? Beware of knee-jerk judgments. It’s a bit simplistic and reductive to say that someone is a bad person. Often, it is the system that is toxic. You may find yourself wondering how the organization can let the person behave that way or perhaps it even supports them in their bad behavior. If this is the case, you should save yourself.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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