A bad boss can turn a dream job into a nightmare. No matter how perfectly the position fits with your skill set, how well you get along with the rest of the team or how much you love the company, working for a toxic supervisor can cause you to seriously question whether or not the career pluses are worth the pain.
While categorizing a boss as “horrible” may seem extreme, a surprising number of people experience their supervisor in this way. Nearly half of workers in one survey said they’d worked for an “unreasonable” manager, according to the 2011 study from OfficeTeam, a staffing service.
— Which traits are toxic? Not every bad boss earns the moniker of “toxic.” Some bosses may be irritating and ineffective, but still respectful and sincere in their attempts to be good managers. The toxic boss kicks it up a notch, moving up the employee’s emotional scale from merely annoying to seriously unhealthy.
“A toxic boss — more recently called a ‘Boss-hole’ by many Millennials — is someone who is often abrasive and micromanaging,” says Christine DiDonato, founder of Career Revolution, an organization helping a new generation of workers navigate the workplace. “Our clients share with us that they’ve deemed a boss toxic by the way they feel around them: scared, nervous, anxious and afraid to make a mistake.” This results in team members not voicing their opinions, not sharing new ideas and “retreating” to avoid their boss as often as possible, says DiDonato.
“Bad or toxic bosses are overly critical, demeaning de-motivators who suck the lifeblood out of the people they manage,” says Daren Martin, international speaker and author of “A Company of Owners: Maximizing Employee Engagement.” “At one company I worked with someone said this about a manager: ‘There isn’t a person out here that would do a damn thing for that guy.’ That’s bad for business.” Martin adds that bad bosses are generally also “control freaks” with a “my way or the highway” mentality. “They crush collaboration in favor of unilateral control, which cripples initiative and stifles innovation,” he says.
— Maintaining your sanity. It’s difficult and distracting to keep your eye on the ball and maintain a high level of performance when your boss is undermining you. Yet if you need to keep your current job for a while, then it’s important to figure out how to excel at your work without being dragged down by your boss’s negative influence. While this is easier said than done, since your supervisor plays such a key role in your work life, there are some strategies that can help mitigate the damage to your emotional health.
One effective strategy is working closely with your boss, utilizing your own skills to make him or her look better and talking them up, says Ronald Recardo, managing partner of the Catalyst Consulting Group, a management consulting company. “Strategies around a boss not being trustworthy include summarizing your discussions and having as many communications as possible take place in writing so there is a paper trail,” says Recardo. “It’s also important to identify who besides your boss is key to your own success, and develop relationships with these individuals.”
Martin suggests choosing to be your own boss regardless of who your manager is. “Decide in advance that you are going to outperform expectations, truly enjoy your day and act like an owner,” Martin says. “Even bad bosses don’t get to determine your attitude. Develop the confidence and the ego strength to be more amused than angry over the toxic actions of another person, even if it is your boss.”
To regain and maintain composure in the face of an unreasonable boss, try helping the boss move away from a stress response to a thinking response, says Jackie Kellso, president of PointMaker Communications, who uses brain-based coaching and interpersonal skills training to help professionals deal with hostility and bullying in the workplace — including from toxic bosses. “Label what you see from the boss: ‘I see how frustrating this is and how urgent it is to fix the problem.’ Do not ask, ‘What have I done wrong?’ It only inflames the bullying instinct,” Kellso says. “Once you label it, it helps to bring the boss to a thinking mode and out of an emotional stress reaction. Confirm and repeat your interest in aligning with him or her to fix the problem.”
— Should you leave your job? Not all bad bosses can be managed through logical self-protection strategies and coping mechanisms. In some cases, a supervisor is so toxic that the best choice is to seek a new opportunity rather than continue to endure harassment or emotional abuse. Sometimes, problematic working relationships with supervisors can’t be resolved, says Brandi Britton, district president of staffing firm OfficeTeam.
“If all else fails, you may find that requesting a transfer or moving on to a new employer are necessary,” Britton says. “If you choose to leave and have the opportunity to meet with HR for an exit interview, take it. Be honest in relaying your feedback, but keep it constructive and professional. Your comments and suggestions could potentially result in positive change.”
Or take a more dramatic approach. “Fire your boss,” says Debra Benton, executive coach and author of “The CEO Difference: How To Climb, Crawl, and Leap Your Way to the Next Level of Your Career.” “Document transgressions, plan financially, give warning, give notice and get out of there.”