Most of us have had at least one bad boss in our working life. A bad or “toxic” boss is someone who you dread speaking with, the leader which makes you feel small or insignificant, the arrogant, irritable, or inflexible manager, or the boss who can instantly suck the life and enjoyment from employees by simply entering the room.
A toxic boss tends to micro-manage, over-manage, or instill fear in their subordinates. Tactics of a toxic boss include giving out constant criticism, keeping a file of employee’s mistakes, falsely accusing workers of errors or spreading rumors about an individual’s work performance, yelling, threatening, or bullying employees, or routinely adjusting schedules in unfavorable ways for a particular employee. Working under a person who manages in such a way can lead to job dissatisfaction in an otherwise pleasant work environment.
What are the Effects of a Toxic Boss?
The management sets the tone in a workplace, if the tone is negative, then being in that environment day after day or year after year, will inevitably affect the employees. Sometimes an individual’s self-confidence plummets, workplace performance decreases and stress increases. Over time, it gets more and more difficult for a person to go to work. The individual may absorb the negativity at work and it will spill over into their personal life.
If individual workers are suffering then, the organization as a whole is also going to be affected by the toxic boss. The mood of the person in charge determines the tone of the work environment, the tone impacts behavior and behavior impacts results. High running costs and above average staff turnover rates have been shown to be associated with the presence of a toxic boss.
Why are Toxic Bosses the Way They are?
Most of the bullying that occurs in the workplace is by people in leadership positions. This is not because negative people are chosen for leadership positions more often than positive candidates. It’s just not that easy being a boss and there are many explanations why someone in a leadership role could be falling into toxic patterns.
Most often, a bad boss is just someone who can’t deal appropriately with the all the responsibilities and pressures that may be on them. Often people with a lot of responsibility get trapped in the cycle of doing more and more; they feel they need to become ultra-focused to complete the tasks at hand, and they simply forget about the human element in the workplace. There may just be too much on their plate all the time and they just “give in” to the stress.
Another reason that bosses may display toxic behavior is that they may feel insecure about their ability to handle the crises or pressures that come up at work. They may be afraid of failure, and they become aggressive to compensate for their lack of self-confidence.
Sometimes toxic bosses are simply controlling. They may not trust anyone to do a good job, so they try to maintain control by keeping a close watch over their subordinates. Being a bossy boss is often their way of affirming their authority to themselves. They may not have very good control over themselves, so by controlling others, they feel somewhat more “in charge” of life.
Another thing to consider is that toxic bosses may be acting this way because they think that is what is expected of them. Often people with authoritative or dominating characteristics are sought out for leadership roles. In society, there is a tendency to believe that a boss has to be bossy. Just look at the boss characters in movies or on television – they are often demeaning, demanding, and emphasizing their position of power.
There are various reasons people act the way they do; bosses are people too, and they have their own struggles and challenges in life. No one really means to be a bad person and most likely toxic bosses do not wake up in the morning and think of all the ways they will create misery in the workplace. They are simply people that are lacking tools to cope with the challenges that face them in the workplace.
How to Cope With a Toxic Boss
It would be great if a toxic boss would just stop being so difficult. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen – people want to have to change to change and the payoff for them changing must be big enough for them to consider adapting their behavior. Since you can’t rely on your boss changing, you have to take things into your own hands if you want to be at peace in your workplace.
So what can you do? There are a few options:
You have to take care of yourself, if tension from your job is carrying over into your personal life, the best thing for you may be just to leave the job. This is usually not immediately feasible for most people, but it is something to consider seriously. If you can’t do it right now, then think of small steps you can take that may get you out of your job and into a more peaceful work environment in the future.
What usually happens when we can’t physically leave a job, we leave psychologically. We go to work with the body, but the mind and the spirit are somewhere else. This is a coping technique, and it may help in the short-term, but if you want to stay productive and contribute to your workplace, you can’t mentally run away all the time. Focus on the things at your job that you do like and continue doing the job that you have been hired to do.
Protect yourself from the toxic emotions that comes from this person by taking as much control over your environment as you can. If possible, limit the time you spend with your toxic boss. Look at non-physical boundaries as well. You may have to learn to stand up for yourself and refuse to compromise your values when faced with an overly demanding boss. If your boss is constantly belittling you, emphasize your competence and tell him or her that you are open to constructive criticism, not destructive criticism.
Don’t Take it Personally
Don’t let a toxic boss affect your self-esteem or get you down. While it is difficult not to be affected when we are constantly being made to feel smaller than we are, try and recognize that it is not you that is making your boss treat you in this manner. If you were not doing your job well, you probably would have been fired long ago. If you are still feeling like it could be due to something you are doing or not doing, then ask around your workplace to see if others receive the same treatment as you. If they do, then it clearly is a case of a toxic boss.
Recruit Support of Your Co-workers
If the consensus in your workplace is that your boss is displaying toxic behavior, you might want to attempt the bold move of voicing your concerns and suggesting coaching or management training for the toxic boss. Alternatively, you can suggest they be transferred to a department where their interactions with employees will be reduced. If it is clearly a case of a heavy workload causing their toxic boss management style, consider suggesting that the workload placed on that individual be lessened. One person speaking up might not make a difference, but if the majority of employees stand up together, there is a better chance that changes will be made.
Leave Work at Work
Avoid thinking about work until you are there the next day. Do not bring your toxic boss home with you. This will take a lot of awareness and self-control, but it is something that can be done. It will help if you remind yourself that bringing negative energy home from work will affect your personal life as well.
Choose to Not Let it Affect You
Recognize you are in the face of a toxic situation, and you do have control over which emotions you take in. You might not be able to change your boss or to control how much time you spend with him or her, but you can choose not to let the toxicity get to you. You have to be responsible for your outlook and not let the negativity of others bring you down. Not only will you stop it within yourself, but you will also prevent yourself from spreading it to others.
Set time aside each day to practice mindfulness. This will help you stay present and centered at work and in your personal life. Take whatever time you need for yourself – sometimes 5 minutes of meditation or a short walk each morning can increase your ability to handle any situations that may come up throughout the day. Taking a walk or sitting in a park during your lunch hour may also help if you feel the need to recharge mid-workday.
If the mood of your boss is negative and the tone of the workplace is affected, you can try to change it by setting an example. Maintain a positive attitude and hope it catches on.
Watch Your Reactions and Take Responsibility
Sometimes you may also contribute to making your relationship with your boss a toxic one. You may become passive, hold back and not realize that it is happening. Take the time to analyze your interactions with your boss and note how you react. Ask yourself what other ways you could have responded that would have made things better in your encounters with your boss. If you think you overreact or let your emotions get the best of you in the workplace then read How to Take Control Over Your Emotions.
Do an analysis of yourself to see how you view yourself. Some people seek leaders who are authoritative. If employees do not have enough self-confidence or they are scared to take initiative in the workplace, then a boss who tells them what to and always watches over them could seem appealing. Check in with yourself and see if you prefer not to take responsibility and would rather just obey someone who seems confident. If this is the case, but you no longer wish to be around a toxic boss, then you must work on empowering yourself first before you seek another solution.
Are You a Toxic Boss?
You might be, but you do not have to stay that way. Awareness of the fact that your management style is not harmonious is the first step to making changes. It is crucial to recognize that to lead others effectively, you first must lead yourself. When you catch yourself displaying toxic behavior at work there are many things that you can do:
- Practice mindfulness and be aware of your feelings, emotions and reactions in the workplace. Realize employees will take on the energy that you put out – if you are frustrated, short-tempered and inconsiderate, then the workplace is likely to have a negative tone. But, if you can become a leader who is optimistic, hopeful, and compassionate that energy will reverberate to the team. A positive, non-threatening environment fosters trust which is likely to increase productivity and boost creativity in the workplace.
- Trust you subordinates. Once you build trust, people will work for you without waiting for your instructions. They will take the accountability and do the job.
- Remain humble and don’t get sucked into “power traps”. Listen to the ideas of your subordinates. Give praise when it is due and show respect and appreciation. Remember, a successful organization requires input from the entire team, not just the person in charge.
- Develop greater self-awareness through self-reflection. Look at your reactions throughout the day and think of ways you could have done things differently.
- Consider asking for feedback from others in the workplace.
- Have compassion and acceptance for yourself. You probably won’t make all the necessary shifts overnight, but do your job well with honesty and good intentions and know that you did all that could be done at that point in time. Practicing compassion for yourself will reduce toxicity and contribute to a calmer working environment.
Resources and Recommended Reading:
- Einarsen, S., Schanke Aasland, M., Skogstad A. (2007). Destructive leadership behavior: A definition and conceptual model. The Leadership Quarterly 18. 207-216.
- Padilla, A., Hogan, R., Kaiser, R.B. (2007). The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. The Leadership Quarterly 18. 176-194.
- Kellerman, Barbara. Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Leadership for the Common Good)
- Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders:Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them
- Ronald E. Riggio. The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations
- Ira Chaleff. The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders
- Stale Einarsen. Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace
- Annie McKee. Toxic Bosses