In what I had thought was going to be an uneventful one-on-one meeting, my boss opened with, “You don’t seem happy here, and we don’t want people here who are unhappy. I would be more than happy to find you another job somewhere else.”
I needed this job, and I wasn’t unhappy. My feelings were hurt, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her intentions were good, I thought. She just worded her concern poorly.
A couple of months later, we had another Zoom call. It went about as well as the first. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don't need advise,” she said. “I suggest you watch your tone.”
That’s when I realized: This was turning into a pattern. I was dealing with a toxic boss.
What is a toxic boss, and why is it a pain to have one?
A toxic boss is a manager who demoralizes and damages the people underneath them. Their repeated, disruptive behavior drives employees to become disengaged, diminishes their sense of belonging, and takes away their autonomy and sense of purpose.
Toxic bosses pull all the levers that lead to burnout,” says Peter Ronayne, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and coauthor of The Toxic Boss Survival Guide.
Many employees reported experiencing negative emotions during the workday, including worry (41%), stress (50%), sadness (22%), and anger (18%)—a recipe for burnout.
The report identified five sources that lead to burnout:
Unfair treatment at work,
An unmanageable workload,
Unclear communication from managers,
Lack of manager support, and
Unreasonable time pressure
And “those five causes have one thing in common: your boss,” the report summarizes. “Get a bad one and you are almost guaranteed to hate your job.”
Here’s what you need to know about working with toxic bosses—and how to preserve your peace of mind
6 signs of a toxic boss
There are good bosses and there are not-so-good bosses. But while some managers can be disorganized, distant, or even a little annoying, that doesn’t mean they’re toxic. So what makes a truly harmful boss?
1. They don’t listen. When dealing with a toxic boss, your feedback, suggestions, and concerns go unacknowledged. And a manager’s constant dismissal harms not only their team, but the entire company.
2. They micromanage. Micromanagement can be an annoying quality of any boss, but it’s also a common hallmark of toxicity. Micromanaging becomes toxic when the boss needs to have a say in everything going on—even when you’ve proven your ability and accountability—and when they’re quick to take credit for work done by others.
3. They don’t foster growth. When working under a toxic boss, you might find your job to be monotonous. As time stretches on, you don’t get any new responsibilities or tasks, your work isn’t recognized, and you might feel stifled and stuck.
4. They act differently around their own managers. They tend to act differently based on who’s observing them and this can be especially problematic because colleagues at your boss’ level or above might not see how they’re treating their subordinates. And for the subordinates, having a boss who’s chummy with higher-ups can feel isolating and make it more intimidating to raise concerns about their toxic behavior.
5. They make you feel insecure. Toxic bosses diminish your sense of belonging and connection to the organization, Not feeling safe to speak up and constantly worrying about job security is incredibly mentally taxing. They burn out people on their teams and in organizations very, very quickly.
6. They have unreasonable expectations. Once, when my team was feeling burnt out from the high-volume output we were expected to hit every day, we raised our concerns in a team meeting. Our manager’s response? “A lot of other companies have an even higher output than us.”
Toxic bosses are often inflexible about their expectations and demand an extreme workload, fast turn-arounds. These demands increase employee anxiety and fear and can undermine work-life harmony, which the report names as a key component for employee well-being
Once you’ve realized your boss is toxic, what can you do about it? There are a few approaches you can take:
1. Give them feedback. Some managers might not be aware of just how toxic their actions are. So your first approach should be trying to talk it out with them. This can also be helpful in determining if your boss is truly toxic—disruptive, rude, and self-centered—or if their management style is simply misaligning with what you’re used to. So if their reaction to polite and professional feedback is cruel or uncaring, you’ll at least have a better sense of what you’re dealing with.
2. Understanding & Analysing their behavior. Toxic behavior often comes from a place of insecurity. Taking a step back and trying to see why they need to exercise so much control over others. The approach? Try to understand the rules of that behavior so that you can maybe offer something that gives a little bit of a boost to the boss and they become a little less needy of squashing everybody else around.
3. Make other connections. It’s easy to feel stuck in a bad manager-subordinate relationship, but you don’t have to surrender to the situation. Instead, make other professional connections with potential mentors, both within and outside of your organization. Fostering these alternative relationships can open up new career opportunities and confidants to help you get out of your predicament.
4. Cultivate self-care. When you look at all these cases of who survives being lost in the wilderness, or after plane crashes, —it’s not the strongest person. It’s the mental attitude that’s involved. But you can find humor in your day, you can express gratitude for small things that are happening even against the backdrop of a toxic boss, you can find a moment celebrate a little win with a colleague. That attitude and those tactics are key to survival—in a toxic workplace.
5. Ask for help. When you’re working for a toxic person, you only have so much power. Before it gets to be too much to handle, turn to someone else for advice on how to navigate the situation or how to get out—it can be a trusted mentor, someone in human resources, or your skip-level manager —it could be someone outside of your workplace. Document specific instances of your boss’ abusive behavior, and be strategic in whom you raise your concerns to, especially if there’s risk of your toxic boss retaliating if they find out you’re discussing them. Taking your worries, and your documentation, to HR.
6. Join forces with others. Chances are, your boss isn’t exhibiting their problematic behavior just to you. Speak with trusted colleagues about their experiences with the boss, and then raise your concerns to someone you trust as a group. When multiple people come together, It becomes clear that this is a situation, It’s not just one disgruntled employee.
7. Get Out. If you’ve exhausted all other options and you can afford to get out, then get out. Of course, quitting immediately without another job lined up isn’t a feasible option for everyone it can take several months to land a new job. Get to work on your exit strategy.
Remember that you don’t necessarily have to leave the company to escape a toxic boss, looking within your organization for other, healthier opportunities is an option. But if you do leave, be direct about why during your exit interview. This gives the company data and documentation they can act on in the future. Just do it like the professional you are. There’s no need to one-up your soon-to-be-former boss and showcase toxic behaviors yourself on your way out.