For many people, the worst part of their job is their boss. “A toxic boss can make you feel incompetent and insignificant,” says Carlota Zimmerman, a success strategist. And that morale-busting situation usually leads to uninspired work, low productivity and no reason to stick around.
These strategies can help you take charge of toxic work situations in a productive manner. And if you supervise teams, being aware of these traits and working to overcome them will help make you a better boss.
Bad behavior: Your boss takes credit for something you did.
What you can do: People consider this the worst bad behavior among bosses, according to a survey from 15Five, makers of an employee feedback tool. When this occurs, gently inquire if there was a problem of miscommunication, suggests Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and executive coach. Say something like, “I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but I noticed my name was left off the reports.”
“An indirect approach will send the message that you’re fully aware of what’s going on and hopefully it will lead to change,” Alpert says.
Bad behavior: They ridicule, harass or threaten you.
What you can do: Imagine that your boss, who has had no prior complaint about your work, takes you out to lunch, only to launch into a litany of all the things you’re supposedly doing wrong—adding that you shouldn’t have been hired in the first place.
That’s exactly what happened to Damian Birkel, founder of Professionals in Transition, a job search nonprofit. After the incident, Birkel decided that his self-worth was not determined by his job.
“When you are called into the office and screamed at, do your best not to take it personally,” he says. “Breathe deeply and say something like, ‘Thanks for the feedback’ and leave.”
Turn to healthy outlets outside of work, but in the meantime, be sure to document your boss’s behavior. If it turns into harassment, file a complaint with your HR department, but understand the risks. Be sure to have documentation for a strong case. And consider looking for a new job.
Have a conversation about what your manager expects from you and what the big-picture goals are
— Stephanie Naznitsky
Executive director Robert Half
Bad behavior: They don’t provide useful or fair feedback.
What you can do: Sometimes your boss is so overwhelmed that they don’t have the time or energy to provide clear direction. In other cases, their perception of your work doesn’t align with the recognition you think you deserve.
“The best way to deal with this type of boss is to communicate with them as often as possible,” says Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director at HR firm Robert Half. Set a regular meeting to discuss progress. Create a list of your best accomplishments—a PowerPoint presentation will be all the more impressive—and see if they’re in sync with your manager’s thinking.
Bad behavior: They micromanage.
What you can do: It’s hard to do your job with someone standing over your shoulder all the time. But how can you get your boss to trust that you’ll do a good job?
“Have a conversation about what your manager expects from you and what the big-picture goals are,” Naznitsky says. “It also helps to be proactive. Keep your supervisor in the loop on projects and offer progress reports before you’re asked for them.”
Bad behavior: Your boss loves to gossip.
What you can do: Bosses who talk about things they shouldn’t can cause a morale problem that spreads—not to mention that those rumors could hurt someone’s career. When your boss starts gossiping, change the subject completely, or switch from speaking about an individual and focus on the circumstances of the issue, Albert suggests.
Say something like, “I appreciate your trust in me, however, I’d like to stay focused on the task on hand.”
Even if your boss continues to gossip now and then, don’t take it as permission for you to spread rumors as well.
Bad behavior: Your boss doesn’t support your career growth.
What you can do: You need a boss who’s fighting for you and making sure you’re learning new skills and rising through the ranks.
That wasn’t the case for Alex Molden during his time in the NFL. He had coaches who would harass him and didn’t have his best interests in mind, so he leaned on more experienced teammates for feedback. Now Molden, who’s a leadership and personal development speaker and coach, suggests finding a mentor if your boss doesn’t provide useful advice.
In addition, he says to seek out cross-functional projects that will draw the attention of others in the organization and join industry associations to build cred and develop relationships outside your company.
3 Ways to Detoxify Your Culture
Here are three ways to change a toxic corporate culture from Stacey Engle, president of leadership training company Fierce Conversations.
1. Take employee concerns seriously. Don’t dismiss issues that are brought to your attention, even if they seem petty at first. It can take a lot for an employee to have the courage to speak up, so be respectful of their effort and do what you can to address the situation.
2. Develop a plan. Once toxic employees are confronted, have a growth plan to hold yourself and them accountable for their improvement. Some negative attitudes have root causes that can be worked through.
3. Equip employees to handle tough conversations. Confrontation can be challenging. You can provide training to help your staff develop the skills necessary to have open and honest—but respectful—conversations throughout every level of your organization. When your employees are able to address issues on their own, they’re less likely to feel frustrated and escalate problems.
When All Else Fails
Sometimes no matter what you do, a bad boss will stay a bad boss. Six out of 10 employees have left jobs or are considering doing so because of their supervisor, according to research from Randstad, an HR consultancy.
A bad boss can become an inspiration of what not to do. Zimmerman had a toxic manager during her time in television, and she’d often ponder how her boss would handle a difficult situation—and do the opposite. Ultimately, Zimmerman decided to quit and launch her own business.
“For people to achieve their career ambitions, they absolutely must believe that they have something important to contribute,” she says. “Once you believe that, it’s much easier to fight for yourself and your dreams.”
Photo by Tomekbudujedomek/Getty Images
We’ve All Been There
Readers share their boss horror stories—and solutions.
“I had a boss who was legitimately abusive verbally and emotionally. When bad behavior reaches the point of psychosis, there’s nothing you can do to fix that. Nor should you have to put up with it. Get it on record so HR can deal with it, and get a new job.” —Amy, administrative assistant“
They jump on every bandwagon instead of focusing on real priorities. I’m at a point where I just speak my mind.” —Debbie, bookkeeper
“My boss takes a long time for a decision, so I use a lot of email reminders and sticky notes.” —Sarah, financial coordinator
“When asked a question, she gives incomplete answers. I’m more direct with my questions and repeat the specific question if necessary. Phrase it as, “So what you’re saying is…” —C.B., executive assistant
“No matter what happened, if it was something good she would take all the credit. If she messed up, she blamed everyone else. But no one could say anything, as she had convinced the owner that her employees were all against her. I finally had my fill and quit.” —Sally, administrative assistant
“In his mind, the term “administrative assistant” meant “has to do anything I say”—whether that be general office work, building maintenance, pest control, plumbing or tile work. I learned to say no when asked to do something outside my realm of work or that I’m not comfortable doing. I write an email stating why I cannot help with said request and suggest alternatives (like hiring a professional plumber!) —Danielle, administrative assistant