The influence of a toxic boss can stretch beyond the workplace: instead of being your usual self, you feel less and less confident every time you step out of the office.
Your demeanor changes and you become more self-critical about everything you do.
Everyone will experience working with a toxic boss at least once in their life. It’s so commonplace that it’s impossible to avoid it altogether.
But it doesn’t mean that your life has to be miserable. Just because you’re working for a toxic boss doesn’t mean you have to be affected by them.
In this article, we discuss ways on how to identify whether or not your boss is toxic, as well as some actionable tips to keep yourself sane throughout your career.
Read on to learn how to neutralize your toxic boss, and when it’s time to move on to a better work environment.
How And Why Power Corrupts People
“Is it me? Am I difficult to work with?” Working with a toxic boss can leave you feeling self-conscious.
Stepping into the office feels like entering the Savannah: one misstep and your eagle of a boss will swoop in and take you back to its lair.
The good news is that the problem is rarely because of the employee.
A 2017 survey revealed that the most common reason why employees leave the workplace is because they don’t like their boss. The survey also found that:
- 61% of Amerians are aware of abusive conduct at work
- 65% resort to quitting their jobs to end the bullying
- 71% of employer reactions were found harmful (emotionally, physically) to recipients
Dealing with toxic bosses is a common workplace phenomenon, making its prevalence seemingly symptomatic of a broken working culture in the US.
However, experts suggest that the problem lies in the culture of leadership itself, not the organization.
Horrible bosses become toxic due to their access to power and influence.
That’s not to say that all bosses and leaders are doomed to become evil; it’s just that leadership and its benefits can convince individuals that they are exceptions to the rule, including dutiful social conduct.
So, why do some bosses take a turn for the worst?
- Freedom from justice. Some leaders simply believe that the ends justify their means. Ethicist Terry Price calls this behavior “exception making”, wherein leaders, particularly political figureheads, bend the rules according to their whim and define injustices as utilitarianism.
- Power intoxication. Bosses that misbehave and act haphazardly sometimes do so simply because they can. They realize the full extent of their influence, which some would view as invulnerability. This kind of leader is prone to abuse, violence, and corruption.
- Personal Empowerment. Even the most noble of leaders will have their own agenda. Being relegated to a position of power gives you access to resources and influence, allowing you to enact based on your principles, regardless of their moral implication.
Power hungry or not, access to influence, resources, and followers can be disorienting. When left unchecked, power can easily turn into toxicity, creating ripples in an otherwise peaceful work environment.
What Makes a Toxic Boss? 5 Types of Toxic Bosses
Power shapes people it different ways. Some individuals will respond to power by overcompensating and projecting a bigger, better version of themselves, sometimes at the expense of others. Others might choose to use this to manipulate and take their employees for granted.
Toxic bosses take on many forms. Recognizing which is which is the first step to understanding what you’re up against, and how you could neutralize your toxic boss.
How they behave: Gaslights employees, acts innocent in times of failure and points fingers at others, uses false compliments to encourage employees to do what they want
The manipulator is constantly giving you responsibilities you can’t or don’t want to do.
They can come off charismatic and charming, but are actually using their social skills to twist their employees to do things that they would rather not take part in. They convince you to comply by giving you false compliments or stirring up competition.
Ever felt like you can’t ever say no to your boss? Beware: you might be working for a manipulator.
This boss is a master of gaslighting. In situations where their ideas fail, they blame you and take no credit for organizing the effort in the first place.
They make you feel bad for mistakes that aren’t even yours.
You find yourself committing to more responsibilities at your own expense simply because your boss always finds a way to make you do their bidding.
The Time Eater
How they behave: Controls time but doesn’t care if they’re late, forces teams to abandon ongoing projects regardless of progress or time spent, expects employees to deliver on time no matter what
Time eaters don’t care about your personal or professional time. Working on an important project? Pack things up, you have to do something else.
Spent months on a new pitch? Scratch that, they “never wanted that idea in the first place”. Enjoying a stress-free workplace?
Forget that, you’re jumping on a project that’s five months behind with no onboarding involved.
Time eaters are so stuck in their own heads that they rarely see how their work ethic affects others.
Most time eaters also have a singular goal and will stop at nothing to make their vision happen.
Time eating bosses typically have their own schedule and expect every single employee to work with their own time and react negatively when others fall short.
This doesn’t mean that time eaters are the most productive bosses in the world.
Lazy, disorganized individuals could still fall into this category and use their position to project being responsible when they are the exact opposite.
How they behave: Openly embarrasses employees, imposes unnecessary pressure on teams without offering any incentives or rewards, creates bureaucratic laws and ignores employee frustration
The sadistic boss needs no introduction – they are the textbook definition of toxic. They find ways to aggravate their employees and seem to revel in other people’s misery.
These are the kinds of bosses that hire people without benefits, work them long tedious hours without any shifts, and are stingy with payment.
It feels impossible to please a sadistic boss. People walk on eggshells around this person and are eager to please them in fear of being scolded within earshot.
As a result, the office energy is low and productivity and creativity are severely impacted.
The Wannabe Friend
How they behave: Stirs drama between departments, avoids responsibility and “democratizes” the workplace, engages in workplace gossip
The wannabe friend may not be as ruthless as the first three bosses but can be just as demoralizing to work for.
Overtly friendly bosses tend to ignore personal and professional boundaries – whether it’s messaging you regarding a non-urgent matter at midnight or asking a personal question right off the bat.
This kind of boss is toxic because employees are forced into a friendship that feels like an obligation.
You don’t want to strain your relationship with your boss so you laugh at lame jokes and agree to weird office hangouts just to make them feel better.
The most dangerous trait of wannabe friend bosses is their penchant for socialization.
They tend to create divides among departments and individuals by encouraging competition, voicing out favoritism, or engaging in office gossip.
How they behave: Constantly asks for updates regarding projects, finds different ways to track your progress, ensures they have a say in every decision you make
The micromanager AKA the productivity killer is the most common kind of toxic boss in the workplace.
The micromanager is the bane of modern offices.
Because of productivity apps, project trackers, and online sharing, this type of boss now has the tools to insert themselves in every working minute of your life.
Instead of using these tools to promote transparency, your micromanaging boss uses it to keep tabs on everything your team is doing.
The worst part? They make incessant comments about your decisions, making you second-guess yourself every step of the way.
Habits Of Toxic Bosses
Still not sure if you’re working for a toxic boss? Keep an eye out for the following signs:
- They only look after themselves. They prioritize self-promotion and don’t care about advancing their employee’s career.
- They control decision-making and always want to have the last say in meetings.
- Rewards and incentives are loyalty-based. Employees who are loyal to the boss, despite their work performance, always get better benefits than actual high-achieving workers.
- They are verbally and physically passive-aggressive.
- They bring others down whenever possible. They undermine your performance and make you feel like you don’t have what it takes to please them.
- Blame typically falls on the employees and never them. These kinds of managers outrightly blame the employee’s performance and incompetence for shortcomings in the business.
- They are prone to criticism but never provide any coaching. They will happily shoot down your ideas but will not provide any guidance on how to come up with better ones.
- They believe their employees are mind readers. They are inflexible and expect the people around them to behave according to their whim, regardless of what other people feel about the situation.
- They create awkward and tense situations in the workplace by calling out co-workers, blatantly pointing out mistakes, or by making misplaced comments.
- They have a strong sense of entitlement. You can’t expect your boss to own up to mistakes, whether it’s personal or work-related.
So You Have a Toxic Boss. What Now?
Confirming that you have a toxic boss can be simultaneously relieving and terrifying: you are filled with a sense of relief in knowing that your boss is truly toxic and it’s not just you.
But now you have to answer the question – what are you going to do about it, and what can you do about it?
Before you can work to actively neutralize or deal with the toxic boss in your workplace, it’s crucial that you first identify what makes your boss tick. Try to answer the following questions:
– Why is my boss toxic?
– How does this toxicity manifest?
– What is my boss’s primary goal?
– Do others experience this toxicity, and if so, do they experience it in the same forms or other ways?
– Are there times when my boss isn’t toxic?
While some people fall into positions of power simply because they crave power and have psychopathic tendencies, most bosses actually start off as fine, normal individuals.
These individuals become warped by their position, and eventually transform into toxic versions of themselves that their previous selves wouldn’t recognize.
Here are three major reasons why bosses become toxic:
Reason 1: Stress and pressure
Why: They are under immense pressure to succeed and produce results, so they take it out on their teams.
Manifestation: They constantly push their team to do more, even if their demands are unreasonable. They make employees stay late, punish them for being a few minutes late, and change strategies and goals constantly.
Reason 2: Loneliness
Why: They feel disconnected from the rest of the office due to the difference in power, and thus don’t feel like they can reach out to anyone.
Manifestation: They dislike office culture and team-building activities. They are anti-social and will punish their employees for any sign of non-work activity.
Reason 3: Personal dissatisfaction
Why: They feel stuck, as if being in their position for so long means that their opportunity for further career growth is gone unless they leave the company, which is too frightening to consider.
Manifestation: They seem unnecessarily bitter and resentful, and only do the bare minimum to keep their job. Anything will set them off.
Oftentimes, there isn’t a single explanation for why your boss acts the way they do.
But regardless of their reasons, they all share the same insecure, manipulative, and immature nature, and it’s up to you to learn how to navigate that in your work.
For this you have three choices: learning how to live with your toxic boss, working to change your relationship with your toxic boss, or a little of both.
Learning to Live With It: Coping With A Toxic Boss
1) Protect Yourself Mentally
A toxic boss is a bully, and at worst, an abuser.
They may not be stealing your lunch money, but they are emotionally tugging at you day in and day out.
The strain that toxic bosses do to a person can be too much to bear, leading to many employees either quitting or giving up on expecting any positive experience from their work life completely.
So learn how to protect yourself.
Internalize the message that you are not at fault.
Passive-aggressive emails, aggressive body language, verbal attacks, and other toxic office politics that your boss might be pulling on you are not things you deserve.
It helps if you can find others who feel the same way.
The most dangerous thing that bullies and abusers do is convince you that you are alone; they isolate you, making you feel that everything they do is on you and you alone. So seek out others on your side, and tell yourselves: this is not your fault.
2) Protect Yourself Legally – Keep Records of Everything
We tend to underestimate just how far our toxic bosses will go… until they actually go there.
If you have an abusive and toxic boss, then don’t let your guard down – you don’t know what they are capable of and how much they will push if you cross their invisible line.
Document everything. If your boss promises you a few days off, a raise, a short break, or anything else, get it on record.
If you have a meeting with them and they promise to do something for you, hit them up immediately after on email, confirming that they are still committed.
This gives you official time and date stamped documentation, just in case you ever need it.
3) Relax In Your Off Time
When work is a place of stress and anxiety, your non-work time needs to help balance it out before you go insane. Learn to relax as soon as you get off work.
This means picking up habits and routines that ease your mind, and training yourself to “turn off” the work mind as soon as you are out of the office.
Remember: you still own your time, no matter how harsh your boss might be during work. Don’t let them take every minute of your day with their emails and calls.
Adopt hobbies that allow you to express your creativity, self-help, and physical and mental care.
This will keep you going for much longer, especially if you choose to ride it out instead of leaving your job.
4) Accept Their Behavior…
One of the easiest traps you can fall for when working under a toxic boss is believing that it might change.
They might have a good day or send a nice email, and suddenly you might start thinking – “Oh my god! Maybe they’re finally going to ease up!”, or, “I knew they weren’t as bad as I thought!”
But a rollercoaster of relief and disappointment hurts you much more than a singular acceptance that you have a toxic, ungrateful, and possibly abusive boss.
The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can plan strategies to move forward under the acknowledgement that you have a bad boss.
5) …But Don’t Blame Them
Toxic bosses are just toxic people, and toxic people want one thing: they want their anger and their frustration to be real.
Deep down, none of us are bad people, even those who actively act as negative influences in the lives of those around them.
Toxic individuals want their behavior to be justified, meaning the best thing you can do to them is lash out. This tells them that they were right to treat you negatively the entire time.
Don’t give them that satisfaction, and learn not to blame them for their behavior.
It’s not up to you to fix who they are; you’re not their mom, their dad, their partner, or their best friend. Just learn to ride it out until you can leave or move above them.
Working to Change It: How To Actively Deal With A Toxic Boss
1) Requests, Not Feedback
We often try to break it to them gently by offering our complaints about the boss’s behavior as feedback.
But feedback about behavior is rarely ever heard. Chances are, your boss has been acting this way for much longer than your employment in the company, and anything you might say as feedback will simply be waved away as inexperience.
So rather than offering feedback on how they should perform, you produce a more active response to instead request what you would like them to change.
Request for the things you need and the changes you would like to see to perform your job more efficiently.
Remember: just because your boss is toxic doesn’t necessarily mean they are your enemy. Learn to work with them without triggering their immature behavior.
2) Stick to the Facts
Toxic people often do not realize that they are being toxic, and an easy way to avoid any kind of toxicity is to stick to the facts. Don’t let them unnerve you during conversations; this only further encourages them to mistreat you, whether they are aware of it or not.
And an easy way to stay centered is by only engaging with the facts. It’s not about trying to get them to empathize with you – it’s all about simply getting your job done and moving on. In most cases, they will respect and appreciate your brevity.
3) Use Body Language to Your Advantage
The power of body language is too often underestimated, but the influence body language has on how people perceive you can be the difference between night and day in your relationships.
Bullies, like a toxic boss, jump at the first opening to intimidate and abuse those around them, so it’s your job to show them that you are the furthest thing from an easy target.
Try out the following power play body language techniques and see how they naturally dissuade your boss:
– When you aren’t talking to your boss, turn away from them. Avoid facing your body towards them as much as possible; only show them your side or back
– During face-to-face interactions, ensure that your chin and chest are lifted and your back is straight. Your hands should also stay in front of you
– Avoid twitchy movements. If they call you, turn to them slowly rather than jerking your head.
After serious changes to your body language, your boss will naturally sense your powerful vibe, and in turn begin treating you with more respect.
4) Report Them to HR
When all else fails but you want to stay in your position, it’s time to consider consulting human resources and/or management.
This can be more difficult in smaller companies, where there might not be an HR team, or where the management might be on friendly terms with your boss.
Whatever the case, it’s important that you only move forward with your case once you have enough documentation of their behavior to back you up.
If your boss is made aware of the investigation, you might need to request a paid leave, or possibly even a change in your position in the company.
5) Move On
Your work shouldn’t feel like a toxic relationship. It shouldn’t feel like a dangerous place, where you expect to be criticized and belittled every single day.
You shouldn’t be afraid to walk into the office, or afraid of your boss’s gaze landing on you.
Only you can decide if enough is enough and if you’ve had too much. No job is worth it. And we get it – quitting is hard, quitting is scary. We tell ourselves:
– I don’t have the time, savings, or energy to find new employment
– I won’t be able to find this salary anywhere else
– I’ve put in too much time and effort in this company to move away
– My skills won’t translate to other available opportunities
– Things will get better, it’s only a matter of time
And perhaps you’re right, with one or all of the points. But if you’ve been pushed to your limit – a limit only you can know – then don’t be afraid to leave and start anew. No job is worth your mental health.
The Post-Toxic Boss Life: Becoming Your Work Self Again
The most difficult thing about working under a toxic boss is that you lose a part of who you are – your work self. Instead of loving your job and what you do, your work routine becomes a chore you hate to return to every single day.
But once you’ve dealt with your toxic boss – moved positions in the company, or you confronted your boss and they changed their behavior, or you found a new job entirely – you aren’t really back to your former self; not immediately, at least. You still ask yourself…
How do I know this new boss or experience won’t be worse?
The truth is, you don’t, and it’s impossible to know until you know.
But you can find relief in knowing that the current version of you has something that you didn’t have before: the experience of successfully dealing with a toxic boss.
It will never be as bad as the first time, as long as you don’t let it. You’re in control of your life – not your boss.
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