Work Culture

How to Deal With a Toxic Boss

. 7 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
How to Deal With a Toxic Boss

A toxic boss – we’ve all had one at some point in our careers. They’re the ones who make you dread coming to work every day; the ones who make you anxious as soon as they walk through the door; the ones who make you wonder if you’re better off working elsewhere. A bully boss can make it difficult to thrive in the workplace because of their unpleasant attitude towards their employees.The big question looms: How to deal with a toxic boss?

I’ve had the misfortune of interning for a toxic boss. She was a well-known woman in the film industry, so people found it impossible to believe that she was a god-awful human being. “But she’s such an amazing, smart woman!” was the response I got when I told people how she was. Her micromanaging was labelled ‘perfectionism’ because famous people are ‘supposed’ to be eccentric; she would often burst into a fit of rage at the smallest of mistakes. She would poke fun at me for not understanding her correctly, and when I took a bit longer to work on her brief once, she laughed at me in front of a guest and said, “quit acting like this is your magnum opus!” 

Her constant belittling and insulting made me dread going to work and even completing my tasks because she never provided constructive criticism. I will always come to regret choosing to work with a person I admired so much because it changed my perception of her for life. Toxic bosses can do that – they can create fear and anxiety around working with new people and plant seeds of doubt in your own capabilities.

Several studies in American workplaces have shown that people who work in stressful work environments are most likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, which can lead to a weakened immune system, colds, strokes, and even death. Even though these statistics don’t paint a picture of the Indian scenario, we can’t be too far off – given our erratic work hours, cut-throat competition, stories of toxic work cultures and general disregard for individual labour, stress runs through our veins.

Warning signs of a toxic boss

Before I delve into the solutions, here are some basic warning signs of a toxic boss:

  1. There’s palpable tension in your workplace. There’s a sense of discomfort you and your coworkers feel whenever your boss is around – like you can’t be yourselves.
  2. You feel like you’re being micromanaged. Your boss is constantly hovering and making note of your every move. You feel stifled and controlled, like you can’t work at your own pace and in your own style.
  3. They cannot accept feedback. Your boss is likely to get defensive when you approach them with feedback instead of hearing you out and analysing the point you’re trying to make.
  4. They play the blame game. When things go wrong, your boss is most likely to be bitter and pin it on someone else instead of taking one for the team. 

If you’ve come this far, I’m sure you’re aware that your boss is toxic and that you are at the receiving end of toxic leadership. Now comes the tough part – how to deal with a toxic boss. The thing to remember about a bad manager is that they’re most likely set in their ways and there’s very little scope for them to change.

Any workplace that takes a toll on your mental and physical health and poses harm to your well-being should be left behind – it can be harmful to you in the long-run.

But if quitting is not an immediate option, here are some ways for how to deal with a toxic boss:

Set firm boundaries and stick to them

It’s essential to set boundaries from the start to maintain a work-life balance because that will stop you from bringing work problems home. If you have conveyed that you’ll complete a particular task the next day at work, stick to it no matter what – cowering will only give your manager easier access to your time and labour outside of work, not to mention more space to be unreasonable. Do not let that happen.

How to Deal With a Toxic Boss

Connect with them on a common goal

Toxic bosses have a problem with power in that they want to exert it wherever they can. The idea is to assure your toxic boss that you’re on their side – if you want something to be done, remind them that you’re both working on the same goal and that you’re dedicated to it.

Instead of demanding something from them, request it – let them know exactly what you will need and why, and how much time you’ll need.

Ask for their help with resources so that they feel like they’re helping you out and, in the process, making themselves look good. Be prepared with data regarding your progress with their help as well.

Change your language to get the point across

As an employee, you have the right to give your boss relevant feedback to ensure the team functions smoothly, but toxic bosses don’t let that happen – in this case, change how you approach the subject matter.

Say, “do you think we should…” instead of, “I think we should…” to make them feel that their decision is of supreme importance. If you want to suggest an idea you’re sure will work, give your boss a few options, and make yours look the most doable. Changing the narrative will help you cope better.

Push for regular assessments of your work

How does that help, you ask?

Regular assessments of your team’s performance will keep the team’s work in the forefront and make all the members aware of your calibre and hard work.

This is important in order for you to build a rapport with your team outside of your relationship with your boss, and to build and maintain transparency regarding work. That said,

Build a strong network of trust in your team

Work can get really difficult when you have a toxic manager breathing down your neck, but your coworkers will be around to help you get through the bad days. Build a good relationship with your coworkers and share your anguish with them.

There’s a chance that your boss has been bad to other members of the team as well – sharing and venting can help maintain calm in the team, and build a sense of solidarity.

There’s nothing more relaxing than water-cooler sessions with your favourite coworkers, discussing your boss troubles.

Try to focus your energies on your work

This is tough but necessary if you’re really stuck or if you love your job too much to give it up. Do not let your manager’s words or actions get to you; instead, try thinking along the lines of how to outsmart this manipulative boss by focusing on all the ways you could do well in your job and making them your reason to wake up every day. Make a list of small goals to achieve in the week and in the month, and work towards them. Achieving them will also help you build a good case for your next job or a promotion – remember that when you’re ready and able to leave the organisation for good, you’ll have learned so much.

Connect with HR and prepare your exit plan

This is probably the last resort, but it’s still a way to get your problems noticed.

If you feel that your physical or mental safety is in jeopardy, do not hesitate or think too much and shoot that complaint mail to the HR manager.

Remember, however, that if this process becomes prolonged, you’re going to have to maintain your composure and be as graceful about the process as possible. That’s because your boss is more powerful than you are, and the smallest error from your end can be held against you. But this shouldn’t deter you – make your case by getting every incident, every conversation, and every remark on record. In the world of e-mails, text messages and WhatsApp, there’s no dearth of sources through which you can record when you were treated harshly. 

When push comes to shove, quitting your toxic manager’s team is a wonderful option.

A good exit plan is to keep your professional network strong and put out feelers wherever you can. Ask your friends and close colleagues for any opportunities that may catch their attention. Update your CV and your LinkedIn profile, and start your search.

It may be tough to think about quitting your workplace for a number of reasons – you love your current job, it pays you well, you have wonderful colleagues, etc. – but a toxic boss can prove detrimental to your health, and if you don’t have your health, there’s very little you have that you can cherish.

These are just some of the answers to the big question of how to deal with a toxic boss. It is difficult, but there are ways to tackle the situation if quitting is not an option. Do you have a toxic boss story? Tell us in the comments below.

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Last updated: 29 July 2021