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How to handle a toxic boss

How to handle a toxic boss

While no workplace is perfect, some complaints are more serious than others. If you recognize your boss is toxic, this is an issue you can't afford to ignore. If you're struggling with an overbearing manager, highly critical executive, or otherwise hurtful supervisor, it's important to identify what's going on and take steps to minimize the damage. In some cases, you can make your workplace manageable with a thoughtful approach to the situation. In others, it's best to update your resume and look for opportunities to move on.

What is a toxic manager?

A toxic manager is any supervisor whose behavior is unnecessarily hurtful, thoughtless, or unproductive. A good boss may need to give you criticism, but they'll do so in a way that equips you for future success. A toxic boss is more likely to present their complaints in a way that pushes you down and keeps you there.

5 signs of a toxic boss

Understanding toxic manager signs will help you identify when a problem is with you and when it's really with your manager. Toxic bosses will often ask you to shoulder the blame, so it's important to know when you need to take responsibility and when the situation is actually out of your hands.

Inconsistent expectations

Clear expectations are critical in any work environment. A boss that leaves you waiting and wondering is fostering a culture of fear. If you don't know what's expected of you, you won't know how to succeed, advance, and thrive in your career. Inconsistent expectations can take the form of unclear directions, an unexpected reprimand, or dismissiveness when you attempt to communicate. It's jarring to find your work unappreciated because it didn't satisfy a rubric you weren't aware of or to see a coworker receive praise when they deviated from the same directions you were given.

Toxic bosses are often ruled by their emotions and act on a whim, which makes it nearly impossible for employees to succeed. Try asking for clarification or requesting written instructions if you struggle with this problem. If this doesn't resolve the issue, the toxicity may be more than you can overcome.

Lack of boundaries

Achieving a healthy work-life balance requires boundaries. However, toxic bosses often overstep these by calling you at home, expecting a response to late-night emails, or making inappropriate inquiries about your personal life. When you take a day off work, you should be free from communications, obligations, and nagging from your boss. Employees with managers who don't respect boundaries are more likely to suffer from burnout.

Employers shouldn't ask their employees for details of their personal lives, religious beliefs, ethnicity, country of origin, or political opinions. While a question about your kids might be innocent enough, you always have the right to refrain from sharing anything you're uncomfortable with. 

"Toxic bosses will often ask you to shoulder the blame, so it's important to know when you need to take responsibility and when the situation is actually out of your hands."

Micromanagement

Micromanagement is one of the most common signs of a toxic manager. This is a frustrating problem because it usually denotes a lack of trust. Bosses who micromanage don't believe their employees are capable of completing tasks adequately on their own and, therefore, feel the need to check in repeatedly and oversee minute details. These managers are also more likely to take credit for others' work because they believe their close supervision made them integral to the job.

Arrogance

Toxic bosses usually believe they're more important than their employees. They're ready to take credit for successes but rarely take responsibility for failures. In reality, a boss should do the opposite, giving their employees credit and taking the fall when they make mistakes. It's nearly impossible to give feedback to this type of manager, which can leave workers feeling trapped in an unhealthy work environment.

Dismissiveness

A good boss will readily listen to feedback and suggestions from their employees. If you find that your ideas and information are dismissed, you may be dealing with a toxic manager. A dismissive attitude makes it difficult to pass essential information up the ladder, which ultimately hinders the growth and advancement of the entire organization. Dismissive bosses are often beset by a sense of denial as well. They don't know how to accept criticism, no matter how constructive, and they're too stubborn to change once they're set in their ways.

What to do when your boss is toxic

If you're dealing with one or more signs of an overbearing boss, you might be thinking, “My boss is toxic.” It's important to pack your professional toolbox with strategies for handling them. The right approach can make your work environment more manageable and protect your mental health despite the challenging conditions.

Strengthen your support network

Make an effort to create strong professional connections with people other than your boss. Having a good relationship with your coworkers will give you a sounding board and support when you're struggling with your boss's behavior. Forming relationships with other managers and executives within the company may give you a more receptive place to voice your ideas. Seeking a mentor, either within your company or somewhere else, can help you build your professional skill set so you're equipped to not only handle a bad boss but also land a better job when the time is right.

Prioritize self-improvement

Let your boss's unfair criticisms and bad behavior slide off your back, and focus on meaningful self-improvement instead. You can view your boss's behavior as an opportunity to increase your patience, resilience, and positivity. Pursue certifications, classes, workshops, and conferences that can help you grow professionally. These accomplishments can provide you with a sense of worth that you're not getting from your manager.

Take time off

Use the vacation time and remote work opportunities available to you. Self-care and time off are especially important when you have a difficult boss. Since you're likely to leave your workplace if you find a better opportunity, there's no reason to let your time off accumulate. Use it when you need it.

Document the behavior

Document as much of your boss's behavior as possible. Send yourself an email about incidents as soon as they happen so you have a clear record of events with dates and times. Though you hope never to need this information, it can prove useful if you need to go to human resources.

Know when to move on

Carefully consider whether your current job is worth dealing with a bad boss. Keep the door open for new opportunities. You can create a profile on job search sites so new employers can find you or sign up for regular email alerts for roles in your industry. While resilience is admirable, you shouldn't have to stick with a toxic boss if it seems there's no hope of the situation changing.

Understanding how to identify and deal with a toxic boss can help you persevere when you're in a difficult situation and maintain an otherwise great work opportunity for as long as possible. Keep in mind that not all overbearing managers are hopeless. Attempt to have a productive conversation and give constructive criticism when appropriate in the hopes that your boss will improve and grow professionally.

More tips for handling a difficult workplace

Learn more about what causes burnout and how you can avoid it so you're not suffering from the weight of other stressors on top of your boss.

Take care of your mental health so you have the resilience you need to withstand the challenges of a bad boss.

Set proper boundaries at work to keep the stress of your toxic boss from interfering with your personal life.

Maintain proper etiquette so you're blameless in any situations that may arise from your boss's behavior.