Toxic bosses are blessed with rare abilities.
They have the rare ability to disengage us from otherwise meaningful and rewarding work. The rare ability to take high performing employees and turn them into incompetent fools who should feel lucky to be employed. The rare ability to single-handedly demotivate and de-energize an entire team, department, and organization.
I’ve worked for more than one toxic boss over the course of my career, and have lived to write about it.
I’ve been belittled and told I was unqualified for my job in front of people who reported to me.
I’ve been informed that I wasted my money on college tuition.
I’ve been asked if I give a shit about my work (loudly, in an open cubicle farm).
All of this was completely and absolutely undeserved, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. At the time, I felt like an unmitigated failure.
I lived down to those expectations.
I’ve had more success in my career than I ever would have predicted for myself, and yet a handful of poisonous, degrading, demeaning bosses over the course of almost 25 years as a professional have had a profound impact on the quality of my work, the quality of my health, and the quality of the relationships I have with important people in my life.
Along the way, I’ve picked up some survival tactics. The tactics in Part 1 will help you deal with the work itself, while Part 2 will help you deal with the emotional / psychological / physical health effects of working for a jerk.
Part 1 — Deal with the work.
- Get out. The most important survival tactic is to get out as soon as you can. Utilize your network. Call in a favor from a friend to get an interview somewhere else. Figure out how to live on a little less income if you’d have to take a slight pay cut to get out even sooner than you’d prefer. A couple thousand dollars a year isn’t worth the toll on your emotional and physical health, relationships, and general well-being that your boss is causing. The additional six tactics below will help you survive until you get out, but the most important step is to work on getting out as soon as you can.
- Deliver results. Toxic bosses don’t care about how you feel. They don’t care about the impact their behavior is having on your productivity or well-being. They don’t care that you hate them (actually, there is a chance that they care, and a better chance that they enjoy it). This is all your fault anyway, so why should they? Toxic bosses care about one thing — results. Specifically, results that make them look good. Figure out what results the jerk cares about most (hint — it’s likely the project you’re getting yelled at the most about), and hunker down and deliver. Yes, you’re helping her by doing this. Get over it. You’re also reducing her negative focus on you and adding months (years?) back onto your life. Remember, these are survival tactics, not passive-aggressive sabotage tactics. And don’t forget — while you’re delivering results, keep working really hard on Getting Out.
- Tell him what he wants to hear. As you’re delivering results, you’ll need to report progress. Don’t lie. Don’t hide the truth. But focus on shading all progress in as positive a light as possible. Report on progress you’ve made, and focus on what’s going well. When you choose to report on problems, don’t ask the boss for help or give any indication that you don’t have it completely under control. Aside from crushing the souls of the people beneath them, toxic bosses love nothing more than pouncing on a problem and finding ways to blame their underlings, ridiculing them for not being able to figure out the solution, and threatening them with their jobs over little things that have gone wrong. Instead, when you have to talk about a problem, talk about it in terms of how you’re actively working to address it.
Part 2 — Deal with the impact to your well-being.
- Stop blaming yourself (and your boss). Despite how toxic bosses can make you feel — incompetent, worthless, lazy, a failure — you aren’t. This isn’t your fault. There is nothing you can possibly do to be successful in this situation, except get out of it. And getting out isn’t failing, it isn’t admitting defeat, and it isn’t giving up. It’s surviving. This isn’t your boss’s fault either, any more than it’s a blue jay’s fault for being a blue jay or a chair’s fault for being a chair. Assholes are assholes. Take all of that energy you’re focusing on hating and blaming your boss, and refocus it on getting out.
- Stop expecting her to change. This is not going to get better. Yes, you can do some things to help in the short-term (Part 1), but those things just make the situation more tolerable. We can apply insect repellent to keep the mosquitoes away, but the mosquitoes will still be mosquitoes. Your toxic boss was a jerk long before you accepted the job, and will continue to be a jerk long after you’ve moved on. She isn’t going to change, and it isn’t your responsibility to convince her to change or to help reform her or see the error of her ways. It’s your responsibility to survive. If you follow these tactics, things will improve temporarily. Don’t let that lull you into false hope. The moment something outside of your control goes wrong, or the boss decides to refocus her ire on you, you’ll be right back where you started.
- Connect. You need someone to talk to, someone with whom you can share what you’re going through. Someone who will listen and empathize. One of the most debilitating effects of having a toxic boss is the sense of isolation. Toxic bosses actively isolate us, making us feel stupid and incompetent and afraid to share our struggles with others, so that they can maintain all of the power. Find someone to talk to about it. Perhaps it’s a family member, perhaps it’s someone at work (be careful — make absolutely sure your work friend can be trusted), perhaps it’s a professional counselor you find through your company’s employee assistance plan. When you work for a toxic boss, you’re afraid to connect with others. Fight that fear. A trusted confidante can help you feel better about yourself, and help you see that no matter how bad things get, it won’t last forever and there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.
- Stop caring. There will be plenty of future bosses who will fully engage you. Plenty of future jobs that will demand extra hours, and travel, and late meetings that force you to miss the occasional dinner at home. This is not one of those jobs. This boss doesn’t require that effort. This job doesn’t require those hours. No amount of effort or hours will make it better anyway, so check out. Focus on friends and family instead. Treat this job as a way to keep a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly. Treat it as a way to pay for the things you really want to do with the people that truly matter to you. Distance yourself. There will be plenty of time for work to truly matter. Right now, it doesn’t. Treat it that way.
Working for a toxic boss can feel hopeless. The tactics above can help turn a miserable situation into a tolerable one, at least for the short-term. The long-term solution is simple. Get out as soon as you can, and don’t look back.
Author update (June 2019) — Since publishing this article last July, dozens of readers have reached out for guidance, or for answers to specific questions about specific situations, or just to vent about their own toxic managers. If you’re struggling with something similar, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m willing to help in any way that I can — I have coaching services that cater to these situations, but email is always free. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading — Chris.
It’s good to laugh a little bit. For a more lighthearted look at this issue, check this out. Or maybe print it and leave it on your boss’s desk.
Check out my follow-up article — if you’ve made it out of your toxic situation, you’re in recovery, and this post just might help you get through it.