Boss battles: Can you handle a tough manager?

Expert tips to troubleshoot a toxic workplace from the latest UOW's Luminaries webinar

Navigating the complexities of today’s workplace can be difficult, regardless of your chosen industry. But throw a challenging supervisor into the mix and the struggle becomes very real.

‘Empowered Beyond 'Bad Bosses': Fostering Workplace Confidence and Leadership,’ saw the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Luminaries webinar delve into the complexities of workplace leadership.

The Luminaries webinar series demonstrates the University of Wollongong's commitment to United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDG), in particular SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities).

The expert line-up included:

  • Associate Professor Diana Kelly: A leader in employment rights and industrial relations who has guided UOW through her senior leadership positions as Chair of Academic Senate 2008-2014, as well as with the NSW and national bodies of Chairs of Academic Boards and Senates. Associate Professor Kelly continues to share her passion and knowledge of industrial relations and history with new UOW students, as Associate Professor and thesis supervisor.
  • Professor Mario Fernando: The panel also comprised UOW's Professor of Management at the Faculty of Business and Law and Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Management. Professor Fernando's research interests focus on exploring how responsible managerial action leads to positive social change. With a focus on responsible leadership, alongside broader topics within business ethics, human resource management and leadership, Professor Fernando  has published three books and numerous journal articles.
  • Dr Nelly Liyanagamage: A lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at UOW, Dr Liyanagamage's PhD focused on Machiavellian leadership in business organisations. Dr Liyanagamage has published multiple journal articles on Machiavellian leadership, and her work has featured in the Journal of Business Ethics and the Leadership & Organization Development Journal.
  • Nic Sullivan: An experienced psychologist and CEO of corporate training consultancy Business Grit, Sullivan specialises in addressing the psychological impacts of work-related injuries, particularly among veterans, first responders, and individuals affected by psychologically unsafe workplace cultures. As a consultant psychologist, Sullivan has supported high-risk work sites across five countries and diverse industries. In 2020, she authored two impactful programs focusing on safety leadership and fostering respectful workplace cultures, earning her a 2024 Australian Institute of Health and Safety Award nomination.

Watch the full Luminaries webinar below to discover how challenging workplaces can be transformed into sources of empowerment and growth.

Here is a selection of compelling tips, insights and advice from the expert panel.

Moving up at any cost

“The mover-uppers are very good at what's called managing up... They're great at telling their boss just how wonderful they are, and coming up with great ideas and showing that they're fabulous, pity about their team… That level of toxicity ­– that happens – in part, because people are not looking at what's happening. They don't look past the assurances, of a team leader or a manager,"

Be cautious of mover-uppers, warns Associate Professor Kelly. Her advice illustrates a common workplace scenario many of us have experienced first-hand. Dealing with the negative behaviour of a typical ‘mover-upper’ is nobody’s idea of fun, but it’s crucial to speak up and address the situation before it escalates.

Measured support

"EAP focuses on individual problems and helps an individual navigate potentially a bad boss or a poorly functioning system of work, but it doesn't fix the system, so it's definitely not enough." 

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can offer a great benefit to organisations, but Sullivan notes their limitations. While EAPs can provide support to individuals, they do not address systemic issues within the workplace, highlighting the need for broader organisational changes to truly resolve workplace problems.

Deception perception

"The interesting thing about Machiavellians is that they're not obviously Machiavellian. They come across really charismatic. They might be your friend. Then you might feel like you can trust them. You might feel like you can confide in them, but at the same time, they might not reveal their true self to you."

Dr Liyanagamage provides a nuanced understanding of Machiavellian leaders, emphasising their deceptive nature. This dose of reality ultimately reminds us to be cautious and critical, even when a Manager appears friendly and trustworthy, as their true intentions might be self-serving.

In good company

"We talked a lot about bad leadership and bad bosses. There is a question about good leaders. What are the qualities of a good leader? How can we foster a more virtuous leadership style in our workplaces?”

As the moderator of the Luminaries panel, Professor Fernando seamlessly guided the discussion towards this insightful question, shifting the focus from ‘bad bosses’ to what makes a ‘good’ boss. Dr Liyanagamage highlighted self-awareness as a key trait, supported by her research. Later in the discussion, Professor Fernando expanded on the importance of personal responsibility.

Reflect on the situation

"Self-awareness is a very important quality for a good boss to be aware of how their behaviours affect others and also try to have sort of immature emotional intelligence to understand how are other people reacting to the way I'm behaving? Are they okay? What can I do to make this place feel a bit more psychologically safe for them?"

Dr Liyanagamage's insight emphasises that leaders must be self-aware and emotionally intelligent to motivate change and team success. It might sound simple, but good leaders must be attuned to the impact of their behaviour on their employees and actively work to create a psychologically safe environment. As one climbs the career ladder, this accountability can easily fall by the wayside.

See the complete 2024 Luminaries line up and stream past webinars in full.