Ray Tiller

Equipping Christian Schools is dedicated to assist Christian school boards, leaders and teachers to develop the Christian perspectives, values, and skills needed to pursue their mission of effective Christian education.

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Toxic workplace?  What to do if I am affected by toxic leadership.

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Advice to staff who feel they are negatively affected by neglectful, abrasive, or abusive leadership:

If you are an employee who is reading this, you are most probably feeling that you are being negatively affected by neglectful, abrasive, or abusive leadership in your workplace.  If you are, your “symptoms” might include:

  • I feel humiliated by this leader’s treatment of me.
  • I am getting sick and sometimes take days off for emotional reasons.
  • I feel negative about going to work each day
  • I try to avoid this leader
  • I have lost my “creative spark” in my work
  • I feel like leaving, and other talented people are feeling the same.
  • I feel 'trapped' in my workplace" – a sense of helplessness - "
  • I seem to have lost the sense of identification and alignment with the school and its mission.
  • I find myself (and some of those around me) tending to grumble, gossip and sabotage instead of being proactive to fix issues.
  • I feel I may need to join the union because I no longer trust the leaders - they don't appear to be interested in my well-being!

I don’t want to underestimate your pain, but, if you have ticked a few of the above statements, you can, and should, do something about it. (By the way, the "something" isn't gossiping behind the leader's back and fomenting unrest among the rest of the staff and school community - that would be both destructive and disobedience to Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18).  Rather, I recommend the following actions as some keys to help you clean up the toxicity of your work environment:  

1.  Identify the issues that concern you:  I suggest you use the “Am I being affected by Toxicity?” test.  Click here to download it.

2.  Articulate your concerns and their effect on your emotions and professional effectiveness:    Some hints:

  • Be clear and professional - write them down for precision and clarity.  

  • Write examples of incidents that raise or confirm your concerns.  

  • Don’t exaggerate and try to keep emotional language to a minimum.

3.  Get your spirit (and professional responsibility) right:  Don’t be too quick to act – take a few days to think and ask God to help you to discern things in the objective light of wisdom and truth.  Some key issues to process include:

  • Discern which concerns are just you being “pernickety”, selfishly over-reactive, etc, and which things really are significant issues of toxic leadership.  It is important to ask a wise and objective, independent mentor to hear you out and advise you re this discernment.
  • Ask yourself whether any aspects of your concerns are a result of your own inadequate or provocative professional or personal responses or performance. You would be well-advised to ask a colleague to give you an honest and objective view on this matter.
  • If you find either of the above to be relevant to your concerns, fix your own attitudes, performance, responses etc first before proceeding with the rest of this process.

4.  Raise your concerns with the leader in question:  If you are not feeling overwhelmingly intimidated (it will take some courage!), go to the leader alone and tell him/ her exactly how you feel.  Stick to your notes and try to be brief and objective.

  • If you do feel overwhelmingly intimidated (to the point of emotional paralysis), take a friend or supporter (eg, spouse, pastor, professional support) so that you have someone to refer to, back you up, act as a witness, etc.

5.  Go to a “higher authority”:  If you feel the leader hasn’t heard you, or treats you badly in the meeting, or the problems continue unabated after the meeting, you should go to the next level of authority (eg, go to the principal if the leader in question is one of the middle managers, or go to the board chair if the principal is your concern.)  Some hints:

  • Use the same preparation that I advised in steps 1, 2, & 3.

  • You may want to take a supporting person along with you.
  • Be confident that you have the right to expect that your workplace is emotionally safe and a pleasant place to be.  Ask for the code of conduct for leaders in your workplace.  If it doesn’t exist, suggest that one be created.
  • Without being emotional, be assertive enough for the board chair to realise that you will not tolerate this treatment and will consider leaving.

So at what point should I consider leaving a toxic workplace?

Don’t be naively optimistic - workplace toxicity cannot always be fixed and it will kill you.  Longer term, it may literally kill you via stress related illness.  In the shorter term you will almost certainly face increased stress, loss of emotional well-being, pressure on marriage and family, sleeplessness, and a loss of your spiritual “release” to be creative and dynamic in your workplace ministry.

So, you should start considering leaving as soon as you are aware of the toxic effects on your life.  Start asking the question about getting a new job (or shifting within the organization) before you become debilitated!

Once you are armed with the possibility of leaving (so you are not trapped).  Check out the following propositions:

  1. If the toxicity has arisen because the leader is inexperienced, lacking is relational skills, or naive, there is some hope of the problems being fixed and the workplace being restored.  Such restoration will require processes like we suggested above, but it is do-able, and if you feel you have the strength, you may choose to “stick it out” as the leader “gets his/her act together.”

  2. If, however, the leader is something of a “sociopath”, clearly putting his/her own needs ahead of the well-being of others or the good of the organization, and he/she continues, without repentance, to do things to demean and de-energize people, I am sorry to say it probably can’t be fixed.  If the board or senior leaders are prepared to keep such a leader in place, you should leave as soon as possible before the toxicity of the workplace kills you.

** The “Am I affected by toxicity?” test can be accessed by clicking hereIt contains a list of statements made by people in workplaces that they felt were being negatively affected by a toxic, abrasive or abusive leader.  The test asks you to tick the statements that match your own feelings and add your own comments.  Doing this will help you to more clearly identify and articulate the issues that you are troubled by.

How can Equipping Christian Schools help?

If you are feeling that you would like to see some changes in this aspect of your school, you may like to consider asking your principal or board to look at the following services offered by Equipping Christian Schools:

Review your team's leadership: 

We can do a  thorough review of the effectiveness and effects leadership in your organization, and then make recommendations for improvement.  Click here for more info, or contact Ray Tiller on 0409646279 or ray@raytiller.com.au

“The Genius of Jesus in Leadership”

This program is a series of 7 seminar/workshop sessions designed to help leaders develop a theory and practice that is consistent with Jesus’ “servant leadership” paradigm.  This program can be offered online in a series of 7 weekly single-session “webinars” from 23rd July to 10th Sept. Or you can do a 2-day intensive in Melbourne 21st & 22nd August).  Click here for more info & registration for either mode, or contact Ray Tiller on 0409646279 or ray@raytiller.com.au.  If none of these suit your school, we can do a tailor-made program for your school/cluster.

Some resources to help you:

If you feel you would like to read more about aspects of what has been discussed in this blog, I can recommend a few excellent texts.  Click here to see my summaries and recommendations

​Ray Tiller developed a Professional Learning Program for the college which facilitated a systematic and wide ranging program of review and development for all teaching staff...

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