By Joni Lindquist

I read a blog post in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Ajit Kambil of Deloitte titled “Navigating Difficult Work Environments.”

In it, Kambil identifies four difficult challenges that C-Suite executives commonly face and four possible responses to these situations. Most of the challenging situations deal with bad CEO bosses:  1) the narcissistic boss – it’s all about him/her and they surround themselves with “yes” people  2) the controlling CEO with unrealistic expectations, 3) the conflict-avoiding CEO who destroys timely and effective decision making and lastly, 4) what I call the Defensive boss (Kambil calls it “Legacy”), who is busy protecting “the way it is.”  The four responses to these difficult bosses and situations are  Exit, Voice, Loyalty, and Optionality.

As a career coach, I often urge the Optionality approach.  As a former corporate executive myself, I’ve seen these types of bad bosses at all levels.  And when you are in the C-Suite, the challenge becomes magnified.  As we know, we can’t change others, we can only change our approach to them.  Working with some clients who have faced these types of situations, we focus on “what can I control.”  I then work with clients on their own emotional intelligence – again – you can’t develop another’s emotional intelligence, you can only build your own.

It’s important to be aware of your own triggers to stress as well as what triggers your bad boss responds to, which will in turn affect how you approach your work and relationship with your boss.  For a narcissistic boss, what can you do to make progress on your initiatives while appealing to your boss’ ego?  How do you help him or her look good?  This may feel a bit manipulative, yet it may be the most productive way to address the issue.

The conflict-avoiding boss may require you to focus on building strong working relationships with your other C-level colleagues and work for win-win situations to solve your own conflicts.  Then approach the boss with the agreed upon solutions.  Sometimes it may be impossible if some of your peers are difficult or have competing goals with your organization’s goals.  Often, executives simply stop going to the boss and work it out among themselves because it’s more painful to involve the boss.  This can be exhausting. I speak from experience.  It takes a ton of extra work to make progress and initiatives may simply languish or die on the vine.

The other strategies Kambil identifies are: Exit, Voice and Loyalty.  Exit tends to be the last choice for most executives, as going into the unknown may leave you in no better situation.  The Voice strategy refers to confronting the problem behaviors and holding difficult conversations.   This can be risky with a boss who holds your career in their hands.

The Loyalty option sounds like a “wait and see” approach – waiting for your boss to lose his or her job.  One must truly understand the likelihood of this happening.  I’ve seen this work, however, if one is attuned to the signals occurring within the company.

I have counseled people on a wide variety of challenging career circumstances, and I think all four options are valuable to consider when you find yourself in a toxic work environment.  For help with the next steps for your unique career, schedule a meeting by clicking below, contact Joni Lindquist –, or call (913) 345-1881.