It’s an all-too-common scenario that has serious real-world indications – the toxic boss. Sure, it’s easy to spot certain types of terrible leaders. You know, the ones that yell and scream about issues large and small, or cover up their own lousy work habits, or outright steal your work or claim it as their own.
These examples of managers who suck are on the extreme end of the spectrum, for sure, but a toxic environment can be created by a boss who does the exact opposite: says nothing, does nothing, and offers no support. Either way, it can put the brakes on your career arc and make you feel bitter, unproductive, and even physically ill from all the stress.
If there is a ray of sunshine in this type of scenario, though, it’s that you can do something about it. There is no need to feel powerless when you have a bad boss. Now, it may not end with you staying at a job you love, or at a brand you admire, but it’s important to be aware and not be in denial about what it means to deal with a toxic boss.
Even better, it’s good to know the ways you can deal with these types of leaders. By taking proactive steps, you can try and put a tourniquet on some of the damage – before it’s too late for yourself, and the company loses a valued employee.
What defines a toxic boss?
Sometimes it’s obvious when it dawns on you that your boss is just the worst. At the same time, there are more subtle signs that a positive change needs to happen for you to stay at your job – and not avoid eye contact or speaking with that leader.
Psychology Today helpfully shared 10 habits that the worst toxic bosses share. It’s a useful guide – almost a checklist – to see if the boss you have isn’t meeting up to your expectations. Have a look:
These are the ones that seem like they aren’t attentive, or maybe even don’t show up regularly to the office. Their absenteeism results in them not knowing what’s going on at work and creates a toxic environment. It also means that employees become default bosses and have to make big decisions on their own – which can be a recipe for disaster.
This persona can take on many forms, but it includes leaders who make decisions based on incompetence, emotional tantrums, or without much foresight. Subsequently, they blame others for their cruddy decisions, whether it’s you or someone on the upper or lower rungs of the management ladder.
Frightened bosses are the opposite of the boss who doesn’t stop yelling. These executives run away from conflicts and leave them to lack resolution. Not having difficult conversations in a professional manner can be just as bad as harshly resolving conflict. It creates disillusion from those who are supposed to be confident in a boss’s leadership skills.
Now, I don’t just mean ones who are shyer in public than others. These are leaders who aren’t transparent and don’t communicate well when decisions are made. A lack of transparency leads to a lot of issues, from gossip build-ups to missed deadlines to work duplication – all of which could have been prevented by a boss who doesn’t fill in the details.
Bosses who don’t apply strategy to goals or don’t have the time or inclination to go beyond “just winging it” aren’t doing you any favors. It leads to a constant state of reactivity for his or her employees and erodes at morale and job satisfaction.
What do I mean by that? Well, if your boss continually says that “everything’s great,” but it’s because he or she only focuses on the short-term and not long term solutions and goals, that means that root problems are never solved and a mountain of hurt is coming down the road.
Bosses without nuance
If you have a leader who flat-out refutes any talk against the status quo – and may even punish or badmouth someone who challenges it – then you are dealing with someone who is all “black and white” and no “gray.” That type of thinking silences new ideas and creates stress.
Bosses with “friends”
By this, I’m talking about favoritism, plain and simple. A manager who promotes people who aren’t qualified or gives special treatment to others, often for reasons that have nothing to do with job performance, are accidents waiting to happen.
Bosses in denial
Some managers don’t want to acknowledge when there is a ton of turnover at your workplace. They also don’t want to look at why people are leaving their jobs. Sometimes the reason is their reflection they see in the mirror, and they do not want to admit it.
Bosses who lack self-awareness
This is another form of management denial – bosses who don’t want to change their bad habits and don’t see that they are actually toxic. Not being self-aware can lead to all kinds of manifestations of being a terrible leader, and none of them are good for the employees he or she leads.
Recognize any of these traits? I’m sorry! But you do not have to be a victim
You are not alone!
A quick look at some stats shared by Harvard Business Review points to why having a bad boss can cause needless stress, lost productivity, and dissatisfaction.
One study by the American Psychological Association notes that 75% of American employees stated that dealing with leadership “is the most stressful part of their workday.” And Gallup’s data shows us that one in two employees leave their company to get away from a terrible boss.
Another study by Life Meets Work had this interesting, and ultimately sad, stat: there are 56% of Americans in the workforce who would call their own boss “mildly or highly toxic.”
And yet, there’s some excellent news in all of this, between the lines at least. There are ways that you can take some control and try to stop toxic bosses from ruining more than just your day.
What you can do about your bad boss
Here’s a look at some of the techniques outlined by the experts. Follow these, and you’ll see that with some planning on your own you can take the situation into your own hands and finally learn how to deal with a toxic boss.
1. Frame the conversation
Instead of running the risk of wrath by asking for mere “feedback” about the workplace, turn a discussion with your boss into a session that features requests to get what you feel is lacking. Talk about your reasoning behind these requests and be specific about the support and resources you need. You must demonstrate how these changes will have a positive impact. Think of it as a performance; plan ahead and select the right time to have this conversation when he or she is in a calm state.
2. Talk to your support system
Don’t put yourself out on an island. Both in and out of the workplace, there are people you can talk to who not only understand but can help you come with ideas to stem the tide of toxicity. Your support network can include good friends who encourage you and help you understand the situation. Job coaches, psychologists, past mentors, and other experts can also give you great advice.
3. Temper your responses
You may have a wild-card for a boss, but there are ways that you can take control of your emotional well-being. Finding outlets outside of the workplace for creativity, practicing good self-talk habits, and learning to relax it times of stress are crucial for your coping.
4. Go on to move, but within
Let’s say you love the company you work for, but you have a boss you want to escape. There may be opportunities to find more fulfilling work within the same organization you report to every day. It’s fine to talk to other managers or co-workers within the company to see if a logical transition is right for you.
5. Get some help from Human Resources
Not everyone wants to do this step or sees it as a last resort, but it’s often an excellent idea to go to HR and to be frank about what is taking place. Before you schedule a meeting with HR, be sure you have made an effort to frame the conversation with your boss and suggest positive changes. Additionally, you should do some investigating to see what your HR department’s track record is when it comes to addressing employee concerns.
6. Get ready for an exit
Deciding to leave a job isn’t trivial. While you have to consider many factors, there are several concerning warning signs that indicate it’s time to go: low self-esteem, feelings of dread, a lack of secure or safe feelings at the workplace, stress leaking into life away from work. If this is happening, you need to let go and search for another, better place – and a better boss – to grow your career.
It could almost be a movie, couldn’t it?
You should also know that you are not alone when it comes to feelings of an inadequate or incompetent boss, or even a corrupt one you have to deal with every day. A recent story on the Vox website brings into sharp relief what some people consider to be a bad boss. In late October, ten writers walked out and quit the popular sports and news website Deadspin, and many of them used Twitter to announce it.
The dissatisfaction stemmed from what employees at Deadspin’s parent company, G/O Media, outlined as severe problems with how the CEO at the company was running things – and they even talked frankly about those issues in an investigative piece on their website. Talk about some serious airing of dirty laundry.
If you read the article, it does seem like there are plenty of stains that Deadspin may want to clean up. They include giving C-suite roles to under-qualified pals instead of selecting diverse candidates who were up for promotion.
They also cited much more interference about their craft, saying that the company’s new direction toward the corporate world is negatively changing the site’s purpose and causing less readership. The firing of a respected editor who was told to “stick to sports” was the last straw, and now the company has public mass resignations on their hands.
This situation almost sounds cinematic, don’t you think? The Vox article points out that dramatic exits such as these are happening in other sectors and not just desk jobs. One of the wilder ones was at several Sonic fast-food restaurants in Ohio.
According to a post on Twitter from workplace issues author Eric Blanc, all the employees at three different restaurants quit on one day. At one store, they left a handwritten note that outlined their concerns in no uncertain terms (and several obscenities to punctuate their points).
It began like this: “Due to terrible management, the whole store has quit.” The note continues that Sonic was purchased by people who don’t care “about anyone but themselves.” The disgruntled employees apologize for the inconvenience but then tell off one of the owners at the end.
The Vox article mentioned another scenario where an entire workforce walked out of a gastropub in New York. Employees said they left because of an absent boss who didn’t communicate and was sometimes abusive. On the blackboard where the specials go, they wrote “Do Better. Please.” before they left.
As the Vox article points out, the U.S. is now in a labor shortage, which is part of the reason why some employees are going to such public extremes. If there are more jobs out than there are unemployed people, it’s easy to see why it’s compelling to just up and leave and find someplace else to go. Workers are likely more apt to go if the leaders of a company aren’t willing to do some of the essential things to keep employees productive and happy.
Avenging the toxic tide at work
You would think with the way the job market is currently that leaders, especially those in senior management, would try to be the best boss they could be. Forbes magazine recently ran a story on what they called “the turbulent and toxic state” of the nation’s work culture.
It cites a study that was recently done by Skye Learning, Some of the stats are pretty startling, and are related directly to some of the “bad boss” behavior that I’m going to be bringing to light.
Among the stats from this study:
- 23% said they work in a negative place
- 26% have no opportunities for advancement
- 82% said they are confident about keeping their current job, but that’s a drop from a whopping 93% just last year
- 21% reported that their job expectations are unclear
- 14% shared that they have bad relationships with the company’s boss
The article gives leaders some great advice about quelling burnout and changing the tide in the workplace of some of these objections.
One piece of advice is for bosses to address worker complaints to help stop job dissatisfaction. Don’t ignore those objections, make them seem less than what they are, or ignore them. That creates a toxic environment.
Leaders are also encouraged to balance praise and encouragement. To be successful, they need to be clear about employee roles and expectations.
Ways to cope while you make your next move
Workers who are feeling constant pressure and insecure about where they stand are not going to be productive, let alone feel fulfilled in their careers. The Forbes story provides coping techniques for those struggling at work.
1. Evaluate what’s happening
Instead of just letting the stress and worry of the work world wash over you, take some time to evaluate what’s happening. How far are you willing to go to be able to work for the company in this way? Go through scenarios on how to speak with your boss about what is happening and how it can be changed. Figure out what you say ‘no’ to in the workplace, including overtime or working weekends.
You should also get down to brass tacks about what is bugging you about the workplace. Sure, it may be a terrible boss in general, but what about his or her policies or behavior is causing concern? It may also be company policy being enforced by the boss that’s an issue, such as too many tedious tasks or expectations that aren’t realistic.
2. Do something if it affects your health
The Forbes article points out that there are some signs to watch for that may point directly to your stress levels at work. Anxiety, increased depression, insomnia, or even physical concerns such as gastrointestinal symptoms may be related to what’s going on at work. Most workplaces realize that your health and safety is vital, so be sure to seek support and proper health care if symptoms such as these are arising.
3. Have true heart-to-hearts
Now, an honest conversation may not always be possible, especially with some of the boss stories we’ve read about in recent months. Still, it may be easier than you think to have frank and productive conversations with your leaders about the way you feel about the workplace. Talk about what’s wrong without it seeming like just complaining. Discuss work-life balance and its importance to you. Haggle in a productive way for better, more realistic deadlines. Ask for more explicit expectations if they aren’t obvious or aren’t being shared.
4. Have a thoughtful exit plan
Depending on the situation, it’s still a bad idea to suddenly quit without any prospects for a job that would be more fulfilling for you. Keeping your emotions in check and study the financial implications of what it would look like if you left your job. Think carefully about how and when (and for whom) to leave your position.
5. Do what you can for yourself
Finally, if you are deciding to stay at work and speak with your boss about the concerns you have, don’t forget good self-care. It’s certainly not all up to you – dealing with an incompetent or negligent boss needs a change from him or her to work – but there are ways to deal with stress while still staying productive.
Alter deadlines before a project starts so they remain realistic. If you have them, take those “sick days” as mental health days to put some distance between the rest. Don’t book back-to-back-to-back meetings or tasks. Don’t hit the ground running right when you get in, but ease into a workday instead. This last one is a big one: don’t bring work home with you. It is essential to keep personal and private time separate from your job.
So, what happens now?
As you can see from the examples above, employees who have bad bosses don’t need to suffer in silence. There are options in play that range from trying to stay at a job you love to leaving if it’s too toxic to remain there. Never feel like you are trapped. You have the power to affect your work-life just as much as your terrible boss does. Think about an action plan and follow through with it. The change will most likely do you good. No one wants a job that sucks.