A new study by a longtime military spouse and psychotherapist shows what we all already suspected is true – military toxic leadership doesn’t just hurt the service member, but can also have a devastating impact on the military spouse and family.
The study itself, which is not available online, was small. To complete it Dr. Jude Black conducted in-depth interviews with 10 Army officer wives who had been involved or wanted to be in involved in volunteer activities within their units. Most had experienced toxic leaders within those units in the last one to three years before the study.
When the military thinks about toxic leadership, they typically think about how self-serving, narcissistic leaders impact those below them. But Black’s study showed that the wake created by such a person can lead to problems at home and in military marriages when the spouse is involved as a unit volunteer -- a role many find themselves in whether they want it or not.
“Each participant experienced hardships related to the experience including; psychological turmoil, negative relationships within the military culture, and dysfunctional marital dynamics,” she wrote in a summary of her study. “These hardships manifested in the form of anger, frustration, depression, worry for their officer-spouse’s well-being, and a feeling of powerlessness.”
There is an important difference between an official who is simply a bad leader and one who is toxic, Black said. The Army defines a “toxic leader” as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance. This leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization, which leads to short- and long-term negative effects.”
On the other hand, a bad leader who is simply not good at his job can result in “adverse effects on subordinates … and mission performance,” but it is not for the same reasons. One is born of an overall attitude. The other comes from being ill-equipped or simply not right for the job.
So what should you do if you find yourself dealing as a military spouse with a toxic military boss? “Just stop volunteering” can seem like an easy answer, but for many spouses who deal with these people, completely removing themselves can lead to being totally isolated from their support systems as well as punishment for their soldier from the toxic boss.
Black says there are three key steps spouses can take.
3 Ways Military Spouses Can Deal With a Toxic Military Boss1. Document everything. Military officials say they want to do away with toxic leaders. And even though reporting them up the chain of command may not be working for you right now, documenting the problems may help later, even if you’re no longer under his thumb. “I do think in the event that anything would come out there needs to be documentation to support what you experienced,” she said.
But documenting can also help with in other ways by giving you a way to process what you’re dealing with. “I’m telling you there’s healing in journaling,” she said. “Write down how you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing.”
2. Remember -- it’s not about you. The actions of a toxic leader may feel really, really personal, Black said – but they’re not. “It’s so easy to take that toxic behavior personally because that’s just how they’re wired – they make it seem about you. You need to rewrite what you’re hearing and you’re telling yourself. This isn’t really about you. It doesn’t matter what your name is, you’re going to be treated the same way,” she said. “If you stop personalizing it and start realizing that it is their problem, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
3. Know when to remove yourself. Although taking yourself completely out of the picture may not be the best plan, she said, you need to make sure you are listening to your emotions and responding in a healthy way. “If you feel that you are having increased depression or increased anxiety when you’re exposed to this person you need to figure out how to create a container around yourself, period,” she said. “If it’s withdrawing, withdraw. … But you need to find something that’s going to keep you connected within your community that you can create a barrier from that direct exposure.”
Have you dealt with a toxic military leader? What did you do?