The toxic boss survival guide (Part 2)

In part one, I talked about the difference between good bosses and their toxic counterparts. This article will focus on strategies that you can use if you find yourself working for the latter.


As an executive coach, I often get called to help leaders who find themselves in some sort of “trouble.” As such, some of these individuals are mandated to work with me because they have been labeled “difficult.” Others are those who seek out a coach to help them deal with their “difficult” boss. If you fall into the second category, this article is for you. The following pages introduce solutions crafted from my experience and form a (somewhat) systematic approach for surviving a toxic boss.


1. Always be professional – Nothing is as gratifying to a toxic boss than pointing out the negative behaviors of their employees. They get an extra kick when they can confirm the negative behaviors of an employee who they are not particularly fond of. To avoid falling into this trap, remove any ammunition they might use against you by being the consummate professional. When interacting with anyone in your organization, be sure to pay extra close attention to the words you use, your tone of voice, and body language. Difficult bosses are always on the lookout for signs that confirm their biases. And, if some inexplicable reason, your manager still has an issue with your behavior, apologize immediately and comply with their wishes. True story: I once had a particularly toxic CEO complain that my desk was “too neat” (even though the employee handbook explicitly stated that all work areas should be “neat and orderly”). Instead of showing my anger, I apologized and explained to them that I had gotten into the habit of filing away projects once I had completed them. Noting their look of skepticism, I made sure that the previously mentioned folders were scattered about my desk the very next day. Seeing my freshly cluttered workspace, the CEO applauded my newfound work ethic. However, it wasn’t long before they began complaining about something else, which segues nicely into the next strategy.


 2. Do excellent work –Toxic bosses are known to harshly criticize their employee’s work. As mentioned in part one, micromanaging is a favorite tactic of these types of bosses. So, chances are they will scrutinize any work you hand over to them like a detective working a homicide case. Even the slightest error can set them off. Be prepared for their investigation by making sure that your work is beyond reproach. The next strategy will help you know whether your work is meeting their requirements.


3. Get feedback – Since your boss is likely to be the one judging your work, make a concerted effort to find out what you need to do in order to achieve their standard of excellence. (It’s really hard to complain about someone who is doing exactly what you want.) Be sure to follow up with an email highlighting what was agree upon during the conversation. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response. Some toxic bosses hate to put things in writing. It upsets their ability to “plausibly” deny knowledge of your good work.


4. Work with a coachWorking with a coach will help you plan actions and look at challenges from different angles. This is extremely helpful when you’re frustrated or overwhelmed by a toxic boss’s behavior. Here are some things that a coach can help you with as you navigate the hazardous terrain:

·   Assess your Situation – The goal here is to find out what are the specific behaviors that you feel are toxic. Is your boss micromanaging, berating, belittling, or illegally harassing you? This is the starting point and becomes the touchstone for the strategic interventions you will create with the help of your coach.

·   Gauge your stress level – As you begin digging into the situation, the coach will assess how much stress you’re experiencing as a result of dealing with the boss’s behavior. Here’s what I do: I ask the employee to evaluate their level of stress on a scale from 1-10. I also ask how often the employee experiences this stress level. This combined with the boss’s specific behavior suggests the urgency of the coaching intervention.

·   Clarify your goal(s) – During your initial session, your coach will inquire about your overall goal for the engagement – It’s unlikely that one session will yield a definitive strategy for dealing with a toxic boss. In subsequent sessions, you will create strategic goals, and actions steps that will move you in the direction of your overall goal.

·    Challenge your assumptions Emotionally drained clients often tell me they just want their boss to leave them alone. In response to that, I remind them that it’s actually their boss’s job to interact with them on a regular basis. However, it is the quality of those interactions that we were trying to change. I also bring to the client’s attention that Laissez-faire bosses often create toxic environments by ignoring employee issues or not giving corrective action.

·   Brainstorm and strategize possible solutions – I like to use collaborative brainstorming, which gathers ideas form both individuals to create possible solutions. However, the client should expect to do most of the heavy lifting. This is designed to promote ownership and accountability. People are most likely to follow through on strategies that they have a hand in creating. However, if you get stuck, don’t freak out. Your coach will offer some strategies to get your creative juices flowing.

·   Get you emotionally unhooked – Some toxic bosses are master puppeteers. They know just what strings to pull to get you to act a certain way. They may question your intelligence or give you an unrealistic timeline for a project knowing full well that you don’t feel confident enough to negotiate a more realistic deadline. When this happens, frustrated employees often engage in passive-aggressive behaviors such as work stoppages, slowdowns, or call outs during critical projects in order to exert what little power they have. This never works and only gives toxic bosses more reasons to punish them. A coach can work with you to help you realize how you may have become a player in your boss’s toxic drama. This is done by your coach asking questions that will enable you to reflect on how you may be hooked by your boss’s behaviors or comments. The strategies and tactics that you create through this process become the cornerstone of your day-to-day interactions will your boss.


5. Get advice – Although it may be hard to believe that your boss is liked by others (perhaps even your co-workers), talking to them about what makes your boss tick might be very helpful. Even if your coworkers don’t particularly like your boss, they might share strategies that may be helpful to you.


6. Get a mentor or advocateIt’s very likely that the executives in your organization have had to deal with a toxic personality (or two) in the past. Being mentored by someone who can advise you or advocate on your behalf can be extremely helpful. However, keep in mind that senior leaders are very busy and may not have the time to mentor you on a regular basis. If that is the case, several impromptu meetings might suffice. The goal here is to get advice and/or support from someone who has more experience and clout than you do.


7. Talk to your boss about their behavior – This strategy makes some people nervous, but sometimes the direct approach is best. The key is to be as non-judgmental as you can and truly try to understand where your boss is coming from. Perhaps they don’t know that they are being perceived as toxic or offensive. If that is the case, having an honest, candid conversation with them about the effects of their behavior could be just the thing that turns the relationship around. It’s been my experience that most bosses (even the bad ones) are just doing what they think is best. They have pressures and responsibilities just like you. And, like you, they want to be seen as a valuable contributor to the organization. I have yet to meet a manager who wanted people to think that they were a jerk.

 8. Document your interactions with them – I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. However, if your boss is consistently abusing you, you’d better start documenting their behavior. This is especially important if they have a pattern of bullying or illegally harassing you. When documenting, it’s important to remember a few key things:

·   Be detailed and specific Notate the dates, times, and locations of the incidents as accurately as possible. You should also make a list of any witnesses to your boss’s behavior.

·   Write using their words – Use direct quotes. Resist the urge to clean up the individual’s grammar. If your boss as a habit of mispronouncing or misspelling words, document it exactly how it was said or written to you. This is especially important if you choose to escalate, or you need to litigate.

·   Safeguard your notes – Be sure to do your documenting somewhere private. Your recording these events is not meant to be seen as an attack on your boss. You are simply taking the necessary steps to preserve your job (and your sanity).

·   Be factual – Steer clear of any exaggerations when it comes to your boss’s behavior. Employees sometimes exaggerate their boss’s behavior in an attempt to highlight just how bad things are. Don’t do it. Stretching the truth is frowned upon in Human Resources investigations and the courtroom. The truth always comes out. Instead, stick to the facts.

 9. Talk to their boss – If your boss continues to be difficult after you’ve talked to them, it’s time to talk to their boss. Again, assume your boss is just trying to do what they think is best. Be professional and respectful as you detail your boss’s behavior and its effect on you and your work. Remember that their boss will most likely tell them about your meeting. Toxic bosses hate being undermined, which is why I suggest talking directly to your boss first and documenting.

10. Go to Human Resources – If you’ve tried the above strategies to no avail, it’s probably time to file an official complaint with your HR Department. If you’ve been diligent with your documentation, you won’t have a problem communicating your boss’s behavior and how it has impacted you. If HR feels that your claim is legitimate, they will investigate it. They may even bring in legal counsel while they do so. Be patient, professional, and factual while your HR Department sifts through the issues that led to your complaint. Don’t be surprised if your boss makes a counter claim against you (another tactic that toxic individuals often employ).

11. Move on – Finally, if nothing else works, it may be time to start planning your exit. At this point, you might be better off switching departments or leaving the organization altogether. If you are seriously considering this step, think hard about where you would like to work next. Take a critical look at what really prompted you to leave. Examine your values and compare them to the mission, vision, and core values of the organization you are considering working for. Many seemingly toxic situations occur because personal and organizational values are misaligned. During the interview with a potential employer, ask questions that will give you a glimpse into their culture. It’s safe to say that if you value life balance, but the organization prides itself on its employees putting in 60 hours a week, working there would put you at odds with your boss. 

Please note that while this list appears to be a step-by-step approach use your judgment as to what applies in your situation. For example, if your manager is illegally harassing you, immediately let them know that their behavior is unacceptable and report them to Human Resources.

 As I mentioned in part one of this article, great bosses are rare. So, it’s important to know how to work with the toxic boss that you are bound to encounter at some point in your career. My goal here is to offer you strategies that will help you survive and (in some cases) turn those toxic encounters into ones that will help you move your career forward.