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Last week I suggested that you leave an organization gracefully if you have a toxic boss. That is one option. However, if you choose to stay there are things that can be done to mitigate your circumstance. I read a book titled Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them written by Jay Carter. That title caught my eye because hurt people hurt people. He uses the word “invalidator” to describe the people who practice toxic office politics.

The irony is that those who were invalidated can become invalidators if those are the tacit rules set by those in leadership positions. Such an environment assumes a “nice guys” finish last mentality. You can become an unconscious invalidator because of the tone set by the boss. Invalidation can be subtle such as a back handed compliment which is a comment that blurs the line between an insult and a compliment. Here’s an example; congratulations on acing the test; who were you sitting next to?  

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize invalidators, they appear to be friendly. But there are clues, if you find yourself feeling badly after encounters with them, you might have been invalidated. It’s bad enough if done by a peer or subordinate, but much worse if done by a boss. Invalidation (a.k.a. toxic office politics) is a form of bullying that should be tactfully challenged whether it’s the boss or anyone. Otherwise, they may never stop.

So how does one confront or tame a toxic boss or colleagues? It starts with self-confidence. Follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s pronouncement: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In other words, be confident and assertive. Look at invalidators in a kind caring way that you show you know exactly what they are doing. A long pause or a knowing smile, leaning forward slightly with confidence.

Asking invalidators to repeat dubious comments may cause them to water down words, especially if it was an insinuation or something they were trying to sneak by you.

If an individual spouts half-truths riddled with innuendo coupled with questionable voice inflections, tone and facial expressions rather than actual words, clarify. Critically analyze the situation and tell the whole truth and remove all doubt.

Then there are those who operate like reality show characters by attempting to publicly embarrass you. People who embarrass you in front of a group use the group for their power. Get them alone and explain how it made you feel. If they do it again keep your cool and calmly state, in front of the group, that you appreciate the feedback, but it would have been less hurtful if given privately. This could illicit empathy from the group. At the very least you stay on the high road.

The approaches mentioned above can be used to confront bosses, peers and subordinates. You just have to be more tactful with the boss. But here is an example of how to specifically tame a boss. This is what happened: The boss was in a bad mood. Our team was catching the brunt of it. Rather than challenging the boss’ caustic behavior, a colleague asked, “How can I help you?” That question disarmed the boss and removed tension in the room. It was a small gesture, but made a big difference.

Consider this: Invalidators usually look big but feel small. Paradoxically, they have low self-esteem but large egos. Invalidator invalidate when they feel inferior or out of control. They attack to gain power and control.

These are just a few of the approaches you can use to deal with toxic people without becoming one. Remember, it’s not what happens but how you handle it. How do you deal with toxic people in the workplace?