Dealing with a Toxic Boss

How many people out there hate their bosses? And how many have the luxury of simply voting with their feet, and leaving? It’s very common to have a toxic boss at some point in your career. Learning how to get along with them can make your experience at work much more tolerable.

Toxic bosses are often energy vampires who drain our morale, creativity and productivity. Ironically, they often feel they are doing the right thing in the process. So when you react to them, you get dragged into a tug-of-war that too often leads to a one way ticket out the door. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

At the same time, the right communication skills can provide a great antidote to those toxic bosses. Here’s how:

Learn how your boss sees the world.

Does your boss go to bed every night dreaming of new ways to be mean and cruel? Doubtful, but if true, it’s time to start planning to leave. Usually, the reality is that your boss has a warped view of managing people. What you see as a criticism, they see as, “holding people accountable.” What you see as politics, they see as, “motivating people to perform.” What you think is pointless nastiness is, in the their mind, “avoiding a country-club atmosphere where people slack off.”

How do you learn what your boss is thinking? Simple, you ask them. Here are some examples that will help you to better understand where the boss is coming from:

  • “What would the ideal department look like for you?”
  • “What kinds of things frustrate you about our team?”
  • “What would be the single biggest thing I could do better this year?”

Validate the boss’s view of the situation at work.

This part feels like sucking on a lemon for most people, but it is the key to changing your boss’s toxic behavior. (When was the last time you responded positively to criticism?) Here, you are not out to agree with your boss or “kiss up” to him/her. Your goal is to make it clear that you understand their point of view so that s/he will then listen to you.

For example:

Boss: “I wish people would stop slacking off and get to work around here.”

You: “Good point; it is frustrating when people don’t perform like you wish they did.”


Boss: “You never do this task right!”

You: “I don’t want you to settle for less than the best. Let’s discuss how I could improve.”

Does it feel funny to say things like these to a boss who acts like Darth Vader? Of course it does. But when you say them, you accomplish something very important – you create a safe space to start talking about changing the boss’s intimidating ways.

Offer an alternative.

Here is where you close in for the kill. Offer your boss what s/he wants, while presenting them with a neutral, factual way to get there – by treating you better! For example:

“I want to give you everything you want in the future.. At the same time, I find it difficult to do that when I am constantly being criticized. It makes it harder for me to do my best. Where could we go from here?”

Now you are in a productive dialogue and have established yourself as an ally of the boss and his/her goals, and can start negotiating a win-win solution as adults. Remember to use facts here, not feelings. Suggest to your boss that they, “share performance expectations” or “talk to me first before you criticize my work”, is OK, but asking them to, “stop being a jerk” is provocative, and will only make things worse.

With the right words, you can often achieve what seems impossible: get your toxic boss to change, using a painless conversation that never puts the boss on the defensive. In the process, you will gain interpersonal and leadership skills that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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