How To Handle a Toxic Boss Like a True Leader

Know thyself, take your power back.

Gizem Cetgin
Nov 2, 2020 · 7 min read

a**hole boss, who puts you under their thumb, nitpicks what you said and did, randomly messages you saying what you did wrong, and pushes you to play on your weakness is your ticket to stand up as a leader. Counterintuitive?

A close friend — let’s call her Brittney — told me about her struggles with her boss at one of the top tech companies. ⁠This boss was expecting her to be creative yet super detailed (though it’s not her strength), and work extra hours with no extra pay. She cared so much about looking good to others, therefore she’d push her team for perfection and fake positivity. Brittney resisted these behaviors. As a result, she got a poor performance rating.

So, this boss:

  • Had no authenticity.
  • Had no true care for her employee.
  • Micromanaged her team.
  • Didn’t understand strengths/weaknesses and how to support people.
  • Would bash her team members to look good.

This boss was toxic.

I believed her boss showed up toxic. But, instead of nodding and affirming my friend, I asked this question:

“While you are telling me this story, who are you being?

How are you showing up?” ⁠

After a few detours and avoidance attempts, Brittney paused and saw that she was showing up as a victim. A victim of her boss and the company culture (hard pill to swallow!).

Whenever her boss showed up toxic, she responded by hiding, avoiding communication, and rebelling with a silent f*ck you attitude. She even admitted that while she had conversations with her boss about her feelings and needs, she did it feeling small, far from showing up as a strong leader.

The truth was Brittney forgot that she, too, is a leader, regardless of her title.⁠

The more we talked, the more she was able to identify how she was unknowingly enabling toxic behaviors. Then, we spotted the key mindsets and behavior shifts she can embody to handle the situation. A few weeks later, she texted me saying she had a phenomenal review with her boss, where she could express herself fully and feel heard. Her boss even told her that others had been praising her. ⁠

How did this happen?

Here are the pivotal changes that helped Brittney to stand up and turn the toxic boss story around:

Stop being (and acting) like a victim.

The most powerful thing to do when facing toxic people is to stop being a victim. Victimhood is a powerless state. This state is where the toxic people source their power; by dominating you.

Remember, every human interaction in its core has a power play.

When you react to the other person rather than consciously respond, you have already lost your power. What they say and do has so much power over you that it throws you off.

These are the stories and behaviors that exist in the victimhood state:

  • Blaming: Internally and externally blaming someone else for your life experience.
  • Complaining: Talking incessantly about why others are wrong, yet doing nothing about it.
  • Hopelessness: Feeling cornered, stuck, and closed to solutions.
  • Lack of self-confidence: Self-loathing or falling into “I am not enough, and that is why this is happening.”
  • Gossiping: Complaining by relishing and finding temporary relief in sharing the negativity with others.
  • Numbing/withdrawing: Telling yourself it doesn’t matter, so that you distract yourself constantly though deep down it feels like soul-crushing.
  • Rebelling: Overtly or silently going into a “f*ck you state” and avoiding to do anything collaborative or constructive.

If you are resorting to any of these, it’s time to catch yourself. Stop perpetuating the behavior. See underneath all there is powerlessness. Spend time with your feelings and thoughts; recognize how each victim pattern leads to suffering inside and no desired result outside.

Turn “the leadership mirror” to yourself.

Now that you’ve given up the victim patterns, it is time to find your unique way of being a leader.

Think about a leader you admire. How do they show up?

Some of the most desired traits we unanimously look up to:

  • Responsibility and accountability: Responding to events and people from a place of ownership and taking charge.
  • Being visionary: Having the ability to connect and being dedicated to a bigger idea.
  • Confidence/empowerment: Showing up empowered and empowering others regardless of what’s happening.
  • Authenticity: Being unreserved and open about who you truly are and sharing it with others.
  • Servitude: Caring about how you can make things better for others
  • Effective communication: Communicating from a place of solution and benevolence.

Leaders take the matter into their hands and have no hesitation when confronting adversity.

When I say a “leader,” I don’t refer to a specific title or responsibility to manage others. I am talking about a human who decides for themselves, rather than letting circumstances decide for them.

In the case of a toxic boss, which is significant workplace adversity, as a leader, you need to empower yourself to overcome this situation, believing your personal vision, identifying what you need, and communicating it clearly and openly.

When you stand up in your power, something incredible happens. The toxic people can’t steal power from you anymore. Either they will have to adjust their behaviors, or the situation gets resolved some other way; such as you getting help from others, changing roles, finding a better fit, etc.

Have your list of leadership traits and compare your own behaviors and mindsets. Are you embodying what you want to see in others, especially in your leaders? Find the gaps in your being/doing and start practicing your ideal leader traits every day.

Get clear on your needs, wants, strengths, and weaknesses.

You probably are getting relevant and irrelevant feedback from your toxic boss. Take a step back to understand what’s true for you. To do that, you will need to get clear on your strengths, weaknesses, desires, and needs.

Strengths & weaknesses: Pay attention to the specific activities you are performing. Do you feel a flow or drain? If it feels enjoyable and you feel good accomplishing, then you are playing to your strengths. If it feels like dread, too much energy, or like a lifeless activity, then you are pushing on your weaknesses.

Desires: Are you satisfied with your current role? Are you spending time building the next step that excites you? If you are ignoring your desires, you are unlikely to show up full and energized. Eventually, you will look disengaged, which puts you at a disadvantage when standing up for yourself.

Needs: Once you are clear on strengths, weaknesses, and desires, take a look at how your current reality is serving you. Do you need to eliminate activities that aren’t aligned with your desires and strengths? Even more elementary; do you need help identifying all of these?

Knowing yourself is power.

You can then get support, communicate, and reason with calm confidence.

Act and communicate from a “solution state.”

When you are responding to your toxic boss, it will be probably hard to feel empathy and compassion for them. But, being able to see that person as in pain and unaware will help you break the negative cycle with them. Remember, “hurt people” hurt people.

This broader perspective will help you not to take them personally. You will see that they don’t know any better. It is up to you to lead both of you to a better result for all. And this is being in the solution state.

Solution state is thinking about how YOU can solve a situation rather than listing all the reasons why it wouldn’t work: how your boss wouldn’t be on board, how the HR/team/culture wouldn’t support you, how you already tried etc… It is also not about punishing or forcefully making your boss see their mistakes. It is asking what’s helpful for everybody at this moment.

Solution state is decluttering your brain from excuses so that it can use the resources to come up with creative/alternative solutions. It is where resourcefulness and resilience live and thrive.

So, frequently check in with yourself: “ Is this thought/behavior a part of a solution or a problem?” And if you are willing to make the situation better, shift your energy to the solution state.

And if all fails…


I understand this may sound like a privileged statement. But, if you did your 100% and showed up as a resilient, accountable leader, and yet the situation doesn’t get better, why should you stay? Even if you couldn’t give your 100% due to what’s going on in your life, it is still a leader-like-decision to leave. Because in this case, you are choosing to solve the situation instead of sitting and stewing in it.

If you have practiced these wonderful leadership traits, there are so many other places that would be lucky to have you. If you think you aren’t in a position to leave immediately due to financial reasons or otherwise, you can still make a plan to leave. You can continue to work while saving money, managing the toxic environment as best you can so it doesn’t affect you negatively, and start looking for other jobs.

The mindset that says “it is hard to find a job” or even “it is covid times, are you crazy!” is your obstacle. People who open up to the possibilities, therefore open their eyes and ears, score opportunities. The world is abundant for those who can recognize the abundance.

You didn’t deserve a toxic boss, but you deserve to use this seeming setback to rise as a leader. The ability to turn adversity into an opportunity not only will serve you in a toxic relationship but help you grow as a wholesome, powerful person in every area of life.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Gizem Cetgin

Written by

Digital nomad, leadership coach writing about overcoming imposter syndrome, following your bliss, and relationships. Follow me:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Gizem Cetgin

Written by

Digital nomad, leadership coach writing about overcoming imposter syndrome, following your bliss, and relationships. Follow me:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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