If there is one thing that's guaranteed to make even a dream job into a nightmare, it's toxic management culture. Most of us have experienced bad management at some point. Often, a manager can mean well but doesn't have the right skills to lead a team. But toxic management is far worse than basic incompetence.
Toxic managers display negative personality traits like narcissism, selfishness and a lack of empathy. They lie, manipulate or bully to retain control, and they're happy to take the credit for others' hard work or pass on the blame for their own mistakes. Anyone who has worked for a manager with these traits will know how awful it is.
A study by the University of Manchester's Business School looked at how employees and workplaces are affected by toxic bosses. The researchers found that leaders who display negative character traits had lower job satisfaction and scored higher on a clinical measure of depression.
In teams led by toxic managers, there were more reports of workplace bullying and counter-productive behaviours in general. In short, toxic behaviour trickles down and infects everyone. An employee mistreated often feels the urge to get their own back on the company, leading to more bad behaviour. It's a vicious cycle, and getting stuck in a negative environment like this can harm your career prospects because you won't bring your best self to the office.
So how do you avoid getting into this unpleasant situation in the first place? Here are some questions to help you spot toxic management at the job interview stage.
1. What's the Manager's Background and Reputation?
These days, it's easy to research a potential new manager, as most professionals maintain a LinkedIn profile. There's nothing wrong with getting nosy and delving into your potential new boss's career history, online footprint, and other key personnel. After all, if you take the job, you'll be spending plenty of time with them!
What's more, this being New Zealand, you might well know someone who is connected with the manager in some way. Why not contact them and ask for some insights?
2. Are they Late Arriving for the Interview?
A few minutes late is okay, so long as they apologise. However, any longer than that could be a red flag. At best, it means that your potential new manager is overworked and overcommitted, meaning they might not have the time to organise a decent induction process and settle you in. At worst, they don't value your time, and that is definitely a toxic attitude.
3. Are they Really Listening to What You're Saying?
A good manager has to be a good listener and engage with the ideas expressed by others in the organisation. In fact, a 2019 study found the number one gripe employees had with their bosses was a failure to listen properly. If you feel that your potential new manager is not giving you their full attention, or they're turning the conversation around to be about them, that's a warning sign that they won't listen once you're in the role either.
4. Are they Being Open and Honest?
It's essential to trust your intuition in a job interview. A gut feeling can tell us vital things that our conscious mind might not. For example, you might subconsciously pick up on body language signs that the manager is hiding something or being dishonest.
This could give you an uncomfortable feeling that you can't put your finger on, but you shouldn't ignore it. Remember — you're interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you! Is this someone you feel good about potentially working with? If not, trust your gut and walk away.
5. Are they Being Negative?
A good manager will always take responsibilty. A toxic manager will blame others when things go wrong. While it's unlikely that a manager would spend the whole interview putting other staff down, even the slightest sign of negativity about the organisation or its people is a huge warning sign.
Saying anything disparaging about others in a job interview is deeply unprofessional, and someone who is happy to bad mouth people will be awful to work with, even if you become a 'favourite'.
6. Do Other Staff Seem Stressed or Anxious?
When you attend an interview, you often get the chance to interact with at least one other person as well as the interviewer, and maybe to walk through the office. This is your chance to observe the environment. Do people seem happy and engaged, or do you feel there's tension and stress in the atmosphere? Can you engage the manager's EA (or whoever meets and greets you) in conversation about the company and what it's like to work there? These little chats can be telling.
7. If It's a Panel Interview, What Are the Interactions Between the Interviewers Like?
Do the people on the panel seem happy and relaxed in each other's company, or are things a little tense? Does one manager dominate the interview and override the others? Watch the social dynamics between the panel carefully, as they will probably be reflected in the wider culture.
8. Are the Expectations for the Role Realistic and Well-Defined?
One key toxic behaviour in a manager is to set the bar unreasonably high and expect impossible things from team members. A toxic manager might deliberately keep details of a role vague because when responsibilities aren't well defined, it's easy to find someone to blame. Watch out for unclear job descriptions, and make sure you ask about what you will be expected to do.
By keeping these tips in mind, you can ensure that the next job offer you accept is at a company with a positive management culture.