5 Ways Toxic Leaders Retaliate via “Proper Channels”

Araya Baker, M.Phil.Ed., Ed.M.
4 min readNov 9, 2023


Toxic leaders design complaint protocols that are self-protective by default.

Anete Lusina/Pexels

Key Points

  • Toxic leaders manipulate “proper channels” to make it difficult for victims to get justice.
  • Toxic leaders manipulate “proper channels” to maintain power and silence critics in five ways.
  • These tactics can include pathologizing self-advocacy and choosing biased higher-ups for appeals processes.

Psychology Today cross-published a version of this essay.

Journalist Jon Stone writes, “One reason people insist that you use the proper channels to change things is because they have control of the proper channels, and they’re confident it won’t work.”

Inevitably, we all encounter power struggles in the workplace, our family or romantic relationships, local politics, faith communities, or civic organizations like fraternities and sororities.

Many victims of power struggles do not perceive their victimization until they have exhausted all the allegedly fair and objective “proper channels” for reporting grievances or engaging in mediation.

Only after institutions block all paths defying the status quo do many victims realize the hoops and hurdles they jumped through and over were intentional, not coincidental, inconveniences.

Demoralization and disillusionment often ensue because of the cognitive dissonance between not wanting to succumb to cynicism and discovering the underbelly of an institution or organization.

Yan Krukau/Pexels

To our defense, we are socialized in hierarchical schools that conflate authority with both morality and reason, as well as a consumerist economy that constantly preys on our insecurities for profit.

How could we not turn into adults who feel less comfortable exercising our moral courage than idealizing leaders we often do not know and have not observed in situations that test their integrity?

On top of this, the dominant definition of peace is negative peace or the absence of conflict without actual justice. This framing conditions us into conflict avoidance, passive aggression, and silent suffering.

These cultural forces shape our natural inclination to trust “proper channels” and distrust methods of whistle-blowing, like filing lawsuits, opening investigations, or contacting investigative reporters.

Not even coworkers or mentors who know how futile the “proper channels” are can deter the naïveté of some of us. Like a child warned not to touch the stove, we believe something about us is exceptional.

Shvets Production/Pexels

Keep reading to confirm the five ways you probably already know toxic leaders manipulate “proper channels” but were gas-lit about because you could not put your finger on your hunches.

  1. Pathologizing self-advocacy or “going above my head.” This might look like being warned or suspended after complaining to a high-ranking leader who manages your abusive supervisor. By decontextualizing and overdramatizing your faux pas deviation from the chain of command, toxic leaders can pathologize you as “unprofessional” or even emotionally unstable (e.g., lacking self-regulation). The focus then shifts from an organization’s lack of self-monitoring to your alleged deficit in self-monitoring. Your concerns are eclipsed with faux “concern” about your health and stability.
  2. Requiring initial reports of the problem to be directed to the problem. This protocol presumes that victims deal with a leader with whom they can reason — someone not committed to misunderstanding and sabotaging them. Yet, in actuality, most workplace bullies who hold leadership positions exhibit signs of narcissistic abuse, in the sense that they will rationalize their behavior to the point of deep hypocrisy and self-contradiction, then DARVO (deny-attack-reverse victim and offender) to avoid accountability. This trait is why many toxic leaders favor reporting systems they can filter and screen over ones that offer victims confidentiality.
  3. Choosing biased higher-ups for appeals processes. An appeals process with integrity involves unaffiliated third-parties who have no relation to the complainant or respondents in a “case.” In toxic systems, appeals processes escalate complaints up a chain of command that is merely a clique. The formal correspondence and documentation — usually printed on official letterhead — obfuscates that your appeal was the subject of a group chat or FaceTime among the signees.
  4. Creating policies that do not obligate follow-up. At the very least, abuse in the workplace warrants direct acknowledgment from leaders. Yet this seemingly common courtesy is not so common due to reservations about legal liability or flat-out malice and pettiness. As an excuse, leaders can craft policies that justify non-responses to serious complaints that warrant immediate follow-up, usually under the pretext of system overflow (if an organization receives complaints non-stop, that’s a serious problem in and of itself). This cop-out leaves room to sabotage complainants by taking no action at all.
  5. Framing complaints with external organizations as retaliation or “snitching.” A common way to deter external reports about institutional betrayal is to pull a classic DARVO move and distort complaints to other agencies as “snitching.” Shaming victims for an alleged lack of loyalty alienates them from others and pressures them to rescind their reports. No one wants to be seen as (or feel like) a snitch, even when, rationally, they know speaking out is a last resort.