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How to Survive a Toxic Leader: Lessons from Swimming with Sharks


How can you defend yourself as a target of a toxic leader?

In the early 1800s Voltaire Cousteau, an obscure French author, penned an essay on how to survive swimming with sharks, apparently for the benefit of sponge divers.[i] In 1974, Professor Richard Johns translated the essay and used it as the foundation for a dinner talk. The essay and Johns’ notes provide a fabulous metaphor and practical guidance for surviving the attacks of a toxic leader, peer, or direct report.

  1. “Assume all unidentified fish are sharks.” We must acknowledge the fact that every organization has sharks among its members. In the water, some fish act like sharks and some sharks do not resemble sharks. In the same way, some benign-looking people are actually bullies and some bullies masquerade their true identities. There is danger in assuming a creature is not a threat when it exhibits docile behavior and there is no blood in the water. However, when there is blood in the water, it may become highly aggressive. A wise person will not assume others are not a threat, but will observe others’ behavior when the pressure is on, differentiating between those who are threatening and non-threatening and between those who cannot be trusted and those who can. This attitude seems to contradict what we have been taught about assuming the best in others until they prove otherwise. However, this attitude is not about assuming the worst in people but is about not exercising blind trust. Instead, the wise will exercise smart trust by identifying those who have selfless and good intentions, demonstrate integrity, and contribute their skills for the good of others, especially in times of anxiety, chaos, and crisis.[ii] The wise will identify as threats those who are self-interested, pursue hidden agendas, demonstrate a lack of compassion, exhibit passive hostility, sabotage team performance, do not keep their commitments, and exploit others for personal gain.
  2. “Do not bleed.” Since the presence of blood sends sharks into a feeding frenzy, it is essential that those who swim with the sharks do not bleed when injured. Similarly, since every organization as toxic members, it is imperative not to present ourselves as prey and vulnerable to attack, control, or manipulation. What does “bleeding” in the workplace mean? To ask that question we turn to research that has identified some characteristics of those most likely to be targets of bullies.[iii] Targets of bullying display tendencies toward anxiety, distress, impulsiveness, depression, self-doubt, fear, and anger. Targets also tend to lack self-esteem and self-confidence, appearing to be an easy victim and unlikely to retaliate. Toxic people, like sharks, constantly seek victims to consume. And like sharks, toxic people conduct an initial test to determine if someone is prey that can be victimized. Just as sponge divers can condition their bodies not to bleed when injured, we must present the appearance of confidence, stability, peace, insecurity. After the toxic person’s initial attack, if we appear to be a victim, if we reveal we have been injured, we will most likely become a victim. But, if we can control our appearance, not react emotionally, and not show we are bleeding or in distress, we can confuse the perpetrator who thinks he has hurt us. The result is the perpetrator beginning to question his abilities to control and manipulate. You may be a target, but you don’t have to be a victim. Being targeted by a toxic leader is a very personal experience due to the attacks on your competence and humanity. Do not take it personally, accept the toxic reality, and acknowledge the toxic person as the problem.
  3. “Limit contact.” Cousteau wrote swimmers who are unable to control their bleeding should not get into the water. While not going to the workplace may not be an option, we can limit the contact we have with toxic people. In her research on spouses of targets of toxic leaders, Jude Black identified a common coping tactic – creating a security zone of emotional distance.[iv] We can create a secure perimeter around ourselves and choose who we allow to enter. Those who we have determined are a threat and not to be trusted are denied entry. Research has indicated avoidance as a common coping mechanism.[v]

Additionally, targets and bystanders can create systems and zones of emotional support. Toxic behavior affects bystanders, as well as targets. A network of trust and encouragement is a powerful survival technique, just as a group of swimmers unite to fight off the attacks of a shark.

  1. “Counter any aggression promptly.” Usually sharks initiate an exploratory, aggressive act prior to an all-out attack, as do toxic perpetrators. With sharks, an effective counter-measure is a punch to the nose, which is not recommended for use against perpetrators, as much as we might like to do so. Even so, what might serve a similar effect to demonstrate to the perpetrator that we understand their intent, are prepared to defend ourselves, and are not their next meal? The goal is to demonstrate firmness, strength, and confidence in a non-aggressive, non-provocative manner. We need to serve notice that we know who they are and what they are about. One highly effective technique is active listening. When they speak something actively or passively hostile, instead of reacting defensively, first parrot the statement back to the perpetrator with, “What I heard you say …” Or, another technique is to ask the perpetrator to repeat what they said with, “Sorry, I missed that. Could you say that again?” Then, repeat back what you heard and ask, “Did I get it?” Then, ask questions for clarification, such as, “Do you really mean what you just said?” Next, after clarifying what was said, demonstrate empathy. There is a saying, “Hurting people, hurt people.” Toxic people have learned their techniques as a means to get what they want and to defend their insecurities. So, acknowledging their situation diffuses the toxicity, like a punch to the shark’s nose. Empathize with a statement like, “Wow, this must be very stressful.” Or, give feedback on your observations using the FAU technique – “You seem frustrated, [or angry], [or upset]. What’s that about?” Everyone wants to be understood. Showing empathy blocks the attack.
  2. Do not attempt to befriend the shark. Toxic perpetrators are all about one thing – survival. Like sharks, they survive by consuming others. They exploit anyone and everyone for personal gain. It is unwise to engage in ingratiating and sycophantic behavior to get on the shark’s good side. Getting closer to the shark increases vulnerability to attack. While kissing up to the perpetrator may delay an attack, ultimately, the relationship is transactional. The first time one disagrees with the perpetrator or fails to give the perpetrator what he wants, the sycophant becomes the next meal.
  3. “Get out of the water if someone is bleeding.” The presence of blood facilitates an aggressive feeding frenzy with the shark attacking anything within striking distance. Similarly, when a target bleeds fear, insecurity, distress, weakness, or emotional instability, the perpetrator seizes the opportunity to attack anyone close at hand. It is wise to maintain emotional and physical distance.
  4. Do not attempt to rescue an injured swimmer. This is counter to what we have been taught about coming to the aid of others in danger. However, when we attempt to defend someone under attack, we expose ourselves as an opponent of the perpetrator and place ourselves at risk. Either the target will survive the attack or not. We cannot protect a target once the attack has begun. It is best to wait out the attack and when it’s over, act to mend the wounds. This means we are under attack, we should not draw others into the attack and encourage them to take sides and to help us. However, once the attack is over, we can find encouragement and support from others.
  5. Use preemptive strikes regularly. Perpetrators, like sharks, have very poor memories and will forget certain people fended off their attacks. The wise will consistently demonstrate strength and confidence by engaging in the tactics discussed here. This does not mean targets should retaliate aggressively for previous attacks. Toxic perpetrators are experts in aggression and will do everything to win during an escalation of hostility. Instead, targets should proactively address the perpetrator’s aggression with consistent countermeasures like active listening, empathy, and feedback.
  6. Do not injure the shark. It is imperative when swimming with sharks that we do not draw blood, which results in a feeding frenzy. Sharks bleed profusely when injured and create chaos and confusion, making it difficult to distinguish between sharks and swimmers. Similarly, while we may want to disable the perpetrator, if we draw blood, we will exacerbate the situation, increasing indiscriminate attacks on targets and bystanders as the perpetrator fights for survival.
  7. Create a diversion to ward off an attack. Sharks tend to be highly self-centered and only on rare occasions do they coordinate with other sharks to attack a swimmer. However, it would be wise for targets to identify the enablers and protectors of the perpetrator since they may join in a coordinated attack. When there is a coordinated attack, one countermeasure is to create a diversion. Since sharks tend toward internal dissension, swimmers can create conflict by introducing something insignificant over which the sharks fight, forgetting their original intent. A second countermeasure is to introduce something that enrages the sharks so much they take their hostility out at everything. What would make for a good diversion? It would not be wise to lie about something. Instead, select an issue that is valuable to the perpetrator. When we have worked with people long enough, we learn what is important based on what gets their attention. Toxic perpetrators are notoriously concerned about their appearance and being liked. A diversion could be as simple as raising a concern about a possible threat to one of the perpetrator’s a pet projects, a value or ideology of importance, or his reputation due to an issue that may reflect poorly on him.

One action by targets sure to enrage the toxic perpetrator is the filing of a grievance with the organization’s Inspector General, Equal Employment Opportunity Office, Labor Management, Employee Relations, Ombudsman, or other employee support program. Filing a grievance can be very effective in providing a distraction, if done in great detail and not as a haphazard reaction to abuse. To prepare for filing a grievance, targets should document all behavior with as many details as possible – When and where did the engagement(s) occur? What was the content? Who was present? What was the impact? Using objective criteria, how did the engagements counteract organizational vision, mission, core values, and individual and team morale and performance? The purpose of this documentation is to demonstrate an irrefutable pattern of counterproductive and disrespectful behavior. Targets should file the grievance when they have a strong, objective argument, not simply consisting of emotional reactions.

Targets should realize the grievance represents an existential threat to the toxic perpetrator and his enablers and protectors and therefore, retaliation is possible, even probable, even if not specifically against the complainant (whose identity should not be revealed), against the members of the organization in general. This group of perpetrators and enablers will feed on the grievance like sharks on chum. Following the filing of the grievance, be prepared for the intensity of the toxicity to increase.

Notice that these recommendations do not include approaching the perpetrator’s supervisor. Should targets go to the toxic perpetrator’s supervisor for relief? Most often, the perpetrator’s supervisor is a toxic enabler or protector, deceived by the perpetrator’s appearance, and who benefits from the toxic behavior. While in many organizations, leaders ask direct reports to present issues to them first in order to “handle it at the lowest level”, the most typical responses are denial, excuse making, and marginalization. Since most toxic perpetrators are experts in managing upward and presenting an accomplished appearance, the supervisor either cannot believe the report of toxic behavior, focuses on the perpetrator’s contribution and accepts the liabilities (the ends justifies the means), or sees the whistleblower as a disgruntled complainer. Also, while there are some supervisors who are sincerely open to addressing toxic behavior, most do not handle it properly, resulting in retaliation against the whistleblower and failing to address the toxic behavior.

That said, it could be beneficial to identify some senior leaders who have influence over both the perpetrator and his enablers and protectors and have the will to require intensive coaching, training, and accountability for behavior change. A target could approach the senior leaders and present the documentation collected for filing a grievance and request assistance. However, experience indicates that unless the target has pure trust in the senior leader to take appropriate action, little resolution will occur since most senior leaders do not want to be bothered. Most often it is best to use the official grievance processes and not to rely on a supervisor or senior leader to bring resolution and change. Trust the experts.

Targets who choose to present a diversion or file a grievance should be aware of the escalation of anxiety, especially of an investigation. But they should also realize that their actions are an investment in a transformed workplace. Every member deserves a respectful workplace in which to thrive and contribute meaningfully to the organization’s success.

Just as it is possible to swim with sharks and not be eaten alive, it is possible to work with toxic perpetrators and survive.

[i] Voltaire Cousteau, “How to Swim with Sharks: A Primer,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 16, no. 4 (1973): 525–28, https://doi.org/doi:10.1353/pbm.1973.0039.

[ii] Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006).

[iii] Al-Karim Samnani and Parbudyal Singh, “20 Years of Workplace Bullying Research: A Review of the Antecedents and Consequences of Bullying in the Workplace,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 17, no. 6 (November 2012): 581–89, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2012.08.004.

[iv] Judith A. Black, “The Lived Experiences of the Army Officer’s Wife to an Army Commander’s Toxic Leadership: A Phenomenological Study” (Ph.D., Minneapolis, MN, Capella University, 2015), http://search.proquest.com/docview/1705951056/abstract/3BCD4B63D9A84BF3PQ/1.

[v] Christine L. Porath and Christine M. Pearson, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, vol. 39 (New York: Portfolio. Kindle Edition., 2009); Christine L. Porath and Christine M. Pearson, “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” Organizational Dynamics 39, no. 1 (January 2010): 64–71, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2009.10.006; Kenneth R. Williams, “Toxic Leadership in Defense and Federal Workplaces: Sabotaging the Mission and Innovation,” International Journal of Public Leadership 14, no. 3 (July 2018): 179–98, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPL-04-2018-0023.

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