How To Deal With A Toxic Boss


The constant berating, recurring fear of getting fired, the never-ending barrage of deadlines and demands… When I first met Darice, she had a long list of reasons why she decided to take a break and quit her job. For her, even the mention of her boss made her feel sick in the stomach and after each session we had, it was obvious how much negative impact his abusive behavior had on her mental health.

Bad bosses are costing many people their promising careers, and affecting their mental health.

International review of industrial and organizational psychology (1999)

“I used to walk home at night with a splitting headache, wondering why he behaved to me like that. Why would he think that it was okay to treat people in that way?”, she says.

Many of us have already asked ourselves these questions several times and sadly, most of us believe that it has to do with something from our part. We go on to add extra pressure on ourselves, trying over and over to spot and rectify any mistakes even if there is none. Unfortunately, the truth is that there is nothing wrong with us. 

Bad bosses are a stubbornly persistent problem that is costing many people their promising careers, ruining companies’ productivity, and affecting the mental well-being of many employees[1]. Tackling such people not only requires your office skills, but also some psychological insights.

Identifying an abusive boss

Abusive bosses may have been around from the beginning of human society. However, it was not until 2000 that the topic became relevant for scientific study. Bennett Tepper, who was a management and human resources researcher at Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University in Columbia, developed a 15-point checklist to study the bad behavior of bosses[2]. He coined the scientific term ‘abusive supervision’ later that year which helped many scholars build their case against toxic bosses.

For more than two decades, Tepper’s checklist played a key role in gauging the experiences of employees in a wide variety of jobs including sales, education, health care, and tech. Based on the checklist, here are some warning signs that can help you identify whether your boss is bullying you or not.

Being rude and verbally abusive

Abusive bosses are known to treat their employees very rudely in front of others. This includes shouting, yelling, and even swearing at them on a consistent basis. Along with making snide remarks or offering unfair criticism, they also enjoy ridiculing and making offensive jokes at your expense.

Invades your privacy

It is never normal for anyone to go through another person’s belongings without permission.

It is never normal for anyone to go through another person’s belongings without permission. Toxic bosses spy on you and even tamper with your work equipment. They may also listen in on your private conversations, open your mail, or snoop around your desk when you are out of office.

Gives you the silent treatment

Excluding you socially and isolating you at work are some extremely toxic behaviors exhibited by bullying bosses. This includes not just avoiding you from company outings or after-hour meetings but also scheduling meetings without informing you or making important decisions when you are not at the office.

Spreads rumors about you

If your boss is making negative comments about you to other employees in your absence, then that also counts as an abusive behavior [3]. Such people sometimes even spread rumors about you in order to damage your reputation. They may gossip about your appearance, work, or personal life, in order to make others believe that you deserve the rude treatment you are getting. 

Undermines your work

From setting unrealistic deadlines to changing project guidelines at the last minute, toxic superiors may do everything they can to increase your chances of failure or cause extra work for you. They may also withhold important information from you or refuse to sign off on a project in time. This can eventually lead to your work being late or incomplete.

Managing a bully boss

According to research by Robert Sutton, abusive superiors can be there in any industry[4]. Unfortunately, standing up to one is not that easy. For some, confronting such behavior means saving their position in the company. Others need to cope with this toxicity while they hunt for a new job. Whatever the case may be, if you are looking to handle the situation in the most effective way, then here are some tips to help you out with that.

Be confident and stand up for yourself

The basic belief that every bully has is that we will always remain passive about their behavior.

British Journal of Guidance & Counselling (2004)

The basic belief that every bully has is that we will always remain passive about their behavior[5]. So, when you finally gather your confidence and stand up for yourself, most of them will understand that you are not someone to be messed with. Keep in mind that you have to do this in a less aggressive or mean manner. 

Never fan the flames

It is obvious that your boss is looking for reasons to shout at you. You are already a target for his toxic behavior, so try not to provoke him even further. This means that you should have complete control over your response and never be boisterous or overly aggressive. Keep in mind that talking behind your boss’s back to other colleagues can only end up worsening the situation. It can also make your workplace dysfunctional.

Keep your distance

Staying inconspicuous is proven to be an effective survival strategy in nature and it completely applies for workplaces too. Keeping lesser contact with your bully boss can do wonders for your workday and also your mental health. Studies show that slow responses to emails, reducing face-to-face conversations, and keeping a safe distance can help avoid unnecessary confrontations with your supervisor[6].

Never hesitate to get outside help 

Even after all your best efforts, your boss can still keep you as a target for his bully behavior. At times like these, do not hesitate to reach out to human resources for help. You can also report to your boss’s superior. Having a list of incidents and dates or your electronic chat history with your boss may come in handy during this time. If you are feeling depressed or emotionally drained, you can also get help from a professional counselor as well.

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