Are you dealing with a toxic boss? Many of us are familiar with this situation. You’ve landed your dream job and love every second. However, time passes, and you realise your manager is exhibiting all the classic signs of a toxic boss.
This can be an alarming realisation. But there are also several traps along the way.
Today, I’ll explore the behaviours that distinguish toxic managers. I’ll also help you reduce the chances of misinterpreting your own opportunities for improvement as “toxic boss” behaviours.
(Related: How To Tap Into Australia’s Hidden Job Market).
How Many “Toxic” Bosses Have You Had?
Before you label your boss “toxic”, you must rule out the possibility that you’re the root cause of the problem.
This might not be the advice you want to hear, but the advice you need. Ask yourself:
Look for evidence of a pattern.
We all have a friend with a streak of relationships that haven’t worked out, and each time the other person was to blame:
- “He was self-aware enough.”
- “She wasn’t someone I could trust.”
- “Total narcissist.”
(Related: How To Build Strong Workplace Relationships).
Eventually, people who are stuck in these patterns create generalised, irrational, yet psychologically comfortable beliefs that shield them from the pain of examining their own behaviour:
- “All men are assholes.”
- “All women are bitches.”
The same thing happens in the workplace, and you’re not immune to it. None of us are.
Just as you would be sceptical about a date complaining about their previous “bad” partners, you need to be sceptical about your temptations to label your previous bosses as “toxic”.
Have The Humility To Look At Yourself First.
If you’ve experienced several workplaces as “toxic,” you may be in a self-destructive pattern. For example:
1. Your Boss Is Micromanaging.
Are you delivering work of the right standard and on time?
If you have a reputation for delivering sub-par work and/or lateness, you’ll likely experience a punctual, goal-focused boss as a “micromanager”.
2. Your Boss Is Critical.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all conversations with your boss will be comfortable. Your boss is there to help you stretch, develop and grow.
Change is uncomfortable.
Is it possible that you’ve joined a high-performance organisation but are not exhibiting a growth mindset?
3. Your Boss Is Incompetent.
Overestimating your abilities and believing you can do your boss’ job better is a common trap (what is the Dunning-Kruger effect?).
We live in a world where everyday people believe they can manage global pandemics and solve climate change.
Is it possible that your confidence is, in fact, hubris based on your low-resolution view of the business?
(Related: How To Deal With Difficult People At Work).
But Studies Prove That Majority Of Bosses Are Toxic!
Most articles on the topic breathlessly exclaim that “76% of bosses are toxic”, citing a “study” by Monster.com.
Take a breath if you’re tempted to use this as overwhelming evidence for why all your previous bosses have been toxic.
As always, the devil is in the details.
- Polls are not serious “studies”. Unless the sample was randomly selected, the data is not reliable. Monster didn’t reveal its data collection method; we can’t assess sampling bias without it.
- Self-reported polls are vulnerable to the cognitive biases I described above. They measure perceptions – not observed, in-context behaviours.
Yes, Monster.com made a basic arithmetic error. While the tally of respondents who described their bosses as toxic added to 72%, Monster.com published the number as 76%.
Why Are You Defending Bosses?
Idiotic, parasitic, incompetent, self-aggrandising bosses certainly exist, and I’ll teach you how to deal with them in a moment.
But most of us get in our own way far more often than bosses do. And I want to teach you how to get out of own way first.
- Building awareness of behaviours that sabotage us is the #1 predictor of career success.
- Reflexively blaming others is the #1 predictor of career stagnation.
Unfortunately, mainstream media signal-boosts the latter type of thinking – because high performance is rare, and targeting rare people is not profitable when you’re selling pageviews.
Once they rule out the possibility that they’re the root cause, they look for ways to reshape their external environment.
(Related: What Is The Right Career For Me?)
How To Identify Toxic Behaviour.
Once you’ve ruled out the possibility that you’re taking yourself off the hook for your own underperformance, review your boss’ behaviour.
Whilst there is no clear definition, there are some clear warning signs of a toxic leader and a toxic professional environment:
- Boss berating you or others in a public forum.
- Boss physically or emotionally intimidating team members.
- Aggressive, rude, apathetic, contemptuous behaviour.
- Unpredictability (e.g., fits of rage followed by charming and kind behaviour).
More nuanced behaviours, which you must assess in the appropriate context, are:
- Your boss contacts you outside of work hours (though this is the norm in investment banking).
- Huge demands are made upon your workload (though this is the norm in early-stage startups).
Qualities of a toxic boss include:
- Blaming: Rather than accepting responsibility, toxic boss convinces themselves they behave this way due to the behaviour of those around them. They consistently blame others for challenges that arise.
- Manipulative: Gaslighting is a clear sign of a toxic boss.
- Narcissistic: Certain toxic bosses cannot empathise with others or connect from a place of care. Whilst toxic bosses may exhibit narcissistic behaviours, true narcissism is a personality disorder psychology professionals diagnose.
- Negativity: Toxic bosses are often negative people. They need to nitpick and criticise other people, berate friends, or speak ill of those they barely know.
- Unapologetic: When toxic people lash out at their loved ones, they’re unlikely ever to apologise or see what they’ve done as wrong. This is likely because their self-worth is bound up in thinking they must be right at all costs.
Unfortunately, all it takes is one toxic individual in a managerial position to permeate workplace culture thoroughly.
(Related: What Are The Hardest Jobs In The World?)
Why Are Some Individuals Toxic?
Ultimately, it comes down to self-awareness. Lack of self-awareness often correlates with fear of vulnerability and loss of control, two traits powerful bosses can be reluctant to accept.
Those with a wide-lens view of themselves and their relationships are less likely to reduce toxic behaviours, as they understand how they can affect others.
Genuinely caring, supportive bosses know how to maintain the following:
- Emotional self-control.
- Adaptability: flexibility in adapting to changing situations and obstacles.
- Integrity, honesty, trustworthiness.
- Optimism in the face of stress and challenge.
2. Social Awareness.
- Empathy and insight.
- Understanding others’ perspectives and feelings.
- Appreciation of others’ strengths and weaknesses.
3. Relationship Management.
- Respect for others.
- Conflict management skills.
- Collaborative approach.
- Sense of humour.
- Emotional intelligence.
How To Deal With A Toxic Boss.
If you’ve decided that your boss is clearly out of line, we’ve compiled a set of measures you can take to prevent this behaviour from continuing – professionally yet assertively.
Your safety is critical above all else. Do not be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, and HR to navigate your situation.
The most crucial step is to start documenting behaviour.
Resist the temptation to record video-diary-style videos of yourself crying into your phone while recounting subjective anecdotes about “aggression” and “criticism”.
You need to collect non-subjective, empirical proof of lies, instances of undermining and unacceptable feedback styles. For example:
- CRM screenshot shows your sales target for January is $300,000. Two weeks later, a screenshot of an email from your boss claiming it was $350,000.
- Screenshot of a public-channel Slack message where your boss undermines you in front of your colleagues.
Unfortunately, toxic behaviour often progresses. Having records of when it began, plus how it changed over time, is crucial, particularly if other team members are experiencing the same thing.
Safe Work Australia provides a comprehensive guideline here.
1. Understand The Signs.
Toxic bosses often lack practical leadership skills. Circumstances that reveal a toxic boss in a work environment could include:
- Micromanaging: Your boss could hassle you to track each task at every moment of the day or legally monitor your screen to see what you are doing. Yes, this is allowed!
- Realistic expectations: Your boss may disrespect your personal limitations or work capacity, underestimating how long tasks take and forcing them, anyway.
- Zero recognition: If your boss rarely supports your wins, encourages or empowers you but instead takes opportunities to tear you down; this is a pretty clear sign.
- Poor communication skills: Toxic behaviour includes poor communication skills, which leads to unclear expectations, inconsistent feedback, and a lack of transparency among employees.
If you’re new to a workplace, be sure to watch the behaviour of other long-standing employees. Their reactions will clarify the dynamic with the boss.
2. Decide If You Should Quit.
In most circumstances, quitting your job before things escalate is a valid option.
High-performance employees leave toxic work environments. If you stay, you will deal with your boss, plus a hollowed-out pool of colleagues that has experienced “brain drain”.
This typically leads to a spiral of amplified toxic behaviours that lead to more resignations, and so on.
If you are not yet financially able to leave, or decide to “ride it out”, follow the tips below to handle the situation in a professional way.
(Related: How To Write A Resignation Letter).
3. Remain Professional.
A toxic situation can make your work life much more complex than it needs to be. However, the last thing you want to do is stoop to their level.
Escalating a situation or matching your boss’s aggression could cause more drama or result in you being fired. This meta-analysis dissects the damaging effects of aggression on organisational culture.
Instead, you can:
- Calmly and discreetly, refuse to engage in this behaviour.
- Keep focused on your workload.
- Be kind and helpful to your teammates.
- As much as possible, keep emotions out of it.
4. Try Not To Take Things Personally.
Some toxic bosses may insult their employees personally to reduce their confidence and further assert their control.
The adage, ‘hurt people hurt people,’ has been explored extensively through psychology studies like this.
All you can do is let comments roll off your shoulder and move forward as best as possible.
We love these ten tangible steps for developing a thicker skin in the workplace, a skill that will serve you well outside work!
5. Vent Outside Of Work.
Sometimes, being professional can only help you deal with a toxic boss so much. You’re a human who deserves to be heard and understood in your struggles.
If you’re experiencing a toxic workplace, lean on those around you.
This could look like this:
Our advice is to keep your venting outside the office. Some coworkers may report your comments to your boss, making you an even bigger target for your boss’s abuse.
6. Focus On Adapting.
It’s worth saying that you might want to adapt to your boss’s leadership style.
Now, this doesn’t excuse a toxic boss’s behaviour or make it worth ignoring; you should still follow our other steps to approach the situation.
An effective way to start is to imagine seeing the workplace from your boss’s point of view.
Some questions to ask are:
- What do they genuinely care about?
- What would they love more in the workplace?
- What would they love less daily?
- How much importance do they place on impressing others?
- How do they measure success?
- What constitutes failure for them?
- What are they afraid of?
Learning to adapt, levelling up your skill set and tackling your workload with grace and professionalism could be an effective short-term solution if you need to stay in your current position.
Adapting your work style could also be helpful for future roles where flexibility is critical.
7. Look For Work Friends.
Sometimes, the best way to deal with a toxic boss is to connect with the other people in your department who can relate to the stress and discomfort.
You don’t have to be best friends or spend regular time with these individuals.
However, you should have a group of colleagues with whom you can leave the office and grab a coffee when times are particularly stressful.
Studies have found that we’re empowered to do our best work around supportive people. Friendship at work can also boost employee satisfaction by up to 50%.
If you know of others in the same situation, message them privately to check in occasionally, and be sure they have support around them, too.
8. Talk To HR.
If, after all your efforts, you are still managing toxic behaviour from your boss and unwarranted aggression, manipulation, or attacks, you may need to approach your human resources (HR) department.
The HR department’s role is to:
- Take a record of the behaviour.
- Informing your boss of their unprofessional behaviour.
- Warn your boss of the consequences.
- Devise a management plan in place to resolve the issue.
- Mediate any communications between yourself and your boss.
If you can’t approach HR, you should approach your boss’s boss or one of the business’s senior leaders for advice.
We understand these options may not be available depending on your circumstances. If you decide to talk to HR, present your documented behaviour as evidence.
9. Create An Exit Plan.
Whilst you might initially decide to stay at a job for financial reasons, after some time, if your mental health is deteriorating or your tactics are not working, it’s time to create a plan to exit the environment.
- Start looking for a new job as soon as possible.
- Refresh your resume (our tips are here!) and send these to your favourite companies or local options in a printed format.
- Build up your emergency savings to support you during any unforeseen break between an old and new job.
- Reach out to your connections on LinkedIn to gauge if there are any available roles.
- Pick up a part-time position to keep you busy whilst your job search!
- Take some time to rest and recover.
(Related: The Tactful Way To Turn Down A Job Offer).
How Will You Deal With A Toxic Environment?
Most people will have to deal with a toxic boss at some point in their careers. It can be a tremendous growth opportunity, particularly early in your career, by learning to stand up for your worth and assert your boundaries.
If you’re reading this and currently facing this situation, consider whether quitting is an option. If not, ensure you can do everything possible to reduce the behaviour or prove to your boss that your work ethic and quality do not deserve mistreatment.
Then, approach HR before finally creating an exit plan to leave.
Rest assured, you have options, and the situation is temporary. Through this, you will become stronger, more resilient, and equipped to face any toxic professional you encounter again!