Sexual harassment, temper tantrums, a ruthlessly aggressive corporate culture and disgruntled drivers. These are just a few of the plethora of problems facing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. So much so that after a heated exchange with an Uber driver that went viral in May of this year, Kalanick publicly declared, "This is the first time I've been willing to admit that I need leadership help, and I intend to get it."

But executive intervention may not have come hard or fast enough for the CEO, who as of this week is on track for a leave of absence. The bigger story here, however, (beyond the Uber debacle itself) is the underlying issue of toxic bosses -- a problem not limited to large companies but equally rampant in many small businesses and start-ups, as well.

In one study from the University of Manchester's Business School, researcher Abigail Phillips found that leaders who show narcissistic tendencies and have a strong desire for power are often lacking in empathy, a toxic combination which can result in those individuals:

  • Taking credit for the work of others
  • Being overly critical
  • Behaving aggressively

"In short," says Phillips, "bad bosses have unhappy and dissatisfied employees who seek to 'get their own back' on the company." Specifically, the research showed that working for a toxic boss can result in:

  • Lower job satisfaction
  • High levels of clinical depression
  • Counterproductive workplace behavior
  • Increased workplace bullying

And the impact of toxic bosses is not just limited to the internal workings of the organization but can have dramatic consequences for a corporation's reputation as well.

Toxic bosses are bad for business.

One study, reported on in the Harvard Business Review by Stanford Professors David Larcker and Brian Tayan, found that the impact of bad boss behavior on company standing was dramatic. In the reported incidents that Larcker and Tayan studied, the specific story of bad behavior was cited in more than 250 news stories each, on average. In addition, the CEOs' behaviors were still being referenced online up to an average of almost 5 years after the initial incident occurred.

A flood of frustration.

OK, so I think we can all agree at this point -- toxic bosses, bad. But how do you make sure the strain and stress of the job isn't overcoming your naturally jovial nature and turning you into a tyrant? Anna Maravelas, author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, says the place to start is by identifying when you are experiencing the neurobiological state of flooding.

"Flooding is when our body becomes awash with adrenalin and cortisol," says Maravelas. "The stress and pressure of the workplace can lead to a flight or fight response in reaction to frustration and make otherwise good people into toxic bosses." Maravelas says that the walnut-sized amygdala part of the brain lights up during flooding and interferes with analytical thinking, memory and even hearing. The key to halting this tidal wave of hormonally induced bad behavior is to pay attention to the little pause that happens in between the time when something happens and we react.

3 possible responses

According to Maravelas, there are three habitual thinking responses:

  1. Blaming the other person or situation. For example, you are waiting in line at the local deli, anxiously looking at your watch, worrying about being on time to your next meeting with a new prospective client. You find yourself thinking, "What is wrong with these morons? Could they move any slower?" This type of response inflames the flooding response and can lead to inappropriate expressions of anger.
  2. Blaming yourself. You are standing in the same line at the local deli worried about being late, but saying to yourself, "I always do this. I am such an idiot. I should have left earlier; now I am going to be late." This type of response is reactive and focuses the anger inward, and it often leads to depression.
  3. Curiosity and problem solving. There you are in the same line, finding yourself concerned about being on time for your next meeting. What you are saying to yourself is, "I know this clerk is doing the best he can, and they are short staffed. I'm here at peak time. Is it worth it to wait? Should I just leave or text and say I may be late?" This type of response allows for the greatest degree of problem solving and is an antidote to flooding.

"The first and second responses blame either another person, a [NM2] system or yourself," says Maravelas. "The third response generates curiosity and humility and looks for data." All three responses become cognitive habits -- unconscious or not -- and can be changed with practice and by working backward. "If you are flooded, it's likely that it's because of something you are saying to yourself," says Maravelas. "Go upstream and identify what triggered your sense of anger, hopelessness, etc., and change what you are saying to yourself to be more organized around the third response -- curiosity and problem solving," she says.

As for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Maravelas says it's probably a good idea for him to take a break. This way he can get some distance from the demands of the job and put the brakes on the flooding that's leading to his bad boss behaviors.

Published on: Jun 13, 2017