Updated June 15, 2023
Ever had that feeling, a nasty suspicion that the Universe has conspired against you to curse you with a toxic boss? It’s like all your bad karma is catching up with you, coz no matter what you do, it seems as if your boss is viciously out to get you!
Toxic bosses are a nuisance that some of us unfortunately have to face at work. This is the boss who steals your brilliant ideas and takes sole credit for them, or withholds information important for you to do the job right, or worse, gives you misleading information that sets you on a wild goose chase. This is also the kind that takes pleasure in your failure, and never fails to remind you of it, repeatedly. Worst. Boss. Ever!
A toxic boss is perhaps your most daunting professional challenge yet, as he or she undoubtedly holds the tightly-locked key to your professional advancement. Or so you may think.
Well, think again!
In truth, a toxic boss is no different from any other challenge you face at work, like an aggressive deadline, or a difficult client, or a technical glitch that halts your work. Temporary, and definitely conquerable!
Through this post, we help you debunk the myths associated with the power of the toxic boss, so you not only survive, but brilliantly thrive even while working for this figurehead of toxicity.
Essential Ways to Survive Working
Let’s get started with 6 Essential Ways To Survive Working for a Toxic Boss:
1. Disarm the Bully by addressing your fears
Toxicity comes in devious forms. But perhaps the most obvious sort of the toxic boss is the Bully.
The Bully operates from the mistaken assumption that he needs to instill fear in his employees/ team/ juniors/ etc., to win their respect and cooperation. In fact, the Bully operates from fear, so he feels compelled to share it. He sets out to deliberately undermine your confidence and create fear in you. He plays down your achievements and highlights every mistake until you no longer feel competent at your job. He also makes conscious efforts to keep you in tenterhooks within, so you’re left in constant anxiety ruminating about the negative repercussions of failing at your job.
His power lies in your fear. As long as your fears survive, this toxic boss thrives. So the best way to beat this form of toxicity is to directly address and neutralize the irrational power you give your fears.
- What is the worst thing that can happen in this setup?
- Can I handle it? If not, how can I prepare myself to successfully handle it?
Once you decide to bring your fears out in the open, they lose their ghost-like ability to haunt you.
For example, let’s say you discover your fear of being fired. Once you have this awareness, your natural survival-instincts will kick in to help you overcome this fear. You may start to look for other jobs that appreciate your current skills, or actively spend time building new skills for alternate career options, or begin to save more to support an unexpected career break, etc. You will develop the intelligence to accept the inevitable, and prepare for the successful alternative.
Then, neither your fears nor your boss have the power to hurt you.
2. Neutralize the Incompetent with your Skills
The Incompetent boss is a toxic boss. This is the person who got promoted before he was ready, or perhaps he’s simply a wrong hire. And he comes in two forms:
- The passive Incompetent: This guy is foolishly unaware of his own incompetence. So he surrounds you with impractical ideas leaving you to struggle on your own at work. Worse, you’re often left fixing the mistakes he makes.
- The aggressive Incompetent: This boss is eerily aware of his incompetence, and his coping mechanism is to ride on your intelligence. He will pass off your innovative ideas as his own, as he knows there’s no way he can match your skills.
Either way, this toxic boss is no good at his job and hence makes you look….. no good!
The only way to deal with this type of toxicity is to neutralize his incompetence with your brilliance. So support your incompetent boss to come out stronger with your skills. (Say what?? Yes, we’ll get to that.)
We hear you going, “But why should I willingly support my toxic boss? Won’t it work against me?”
Well, you’ve probably heard the old corporate adage, “A Leader is only as good as his team!” The flipped out 21st century adage goes, “A professional is (only) as good as his boss shows him to be!”
Look, if you are his junior and can still identify the fault with his skills, then chances are that his seniors see that too. But you’re going to win no brownie points from your superiors when your boss continues to look incompetent or foolish. So diffuse this bomb first. Where he lacks, use your knowledge and expertise to help him make the right decisions. Become his right arm and let him know that you’re undoubtedly there to back him. Then you’ll find that in surprisingly little time, people soon recognize the root of his new-found competence – YOU!
3. Flow with the Micromanager to Reduce his Sting
Have you noticed how we hate following instructions? Right from childhood, we resent it when our parents, teachers, driving instructors, peers and others throw their superiority in our face by telling us what to do. Coz we all like to retain control. In fact, the more we feel threatened, the more we feel compelled to fight for control.
The Micromanager is a twisted version of the toxic boss, who thinks he can retain control by snatching it from others. His micromanagement is not necessarily a bullying tactic. But his obsessive need for control is the reason he feels entitled to instruct you on trivial details, from your choice of socks (white or ivory) to the way you file your report (paper clip or staple), to the fonts you used in your presentation (bold or italics). His confidence comes from exerting extreme control on even the most minute details of your job and personality. Hence his brand statement – MY way, or you sure can walk the highway!
His power lies in your resistance to his quest for control.
Deal with him much like how your parents possibly dealt with you during childhood, when you were fighting for control with a temper tantrum. They’re unlikely to have forced their way, and if they did, they’re unlikely to have found success. Instead, they probably just let you be until you felt secure and became open to their them. That’s when they suddenly sneaked in their inputs, and had you willingly follow them!
It’s the same with your Micromanager boss. He is but a tantrum-throwing child fighting for control. Pamper him by flowing with it. Here we’re not saying that you become a passive boss-pleasing coward. But we are saying that you become passive with your resistance to his micromanagement.
You will soon find that at one point, he no longer feels threatened by you (or your ideas, professional expertise, popularity, etc.). He may even consider you his most supportive employee (which you certainly are: a universally supportive employee). That’s when you sneak in your ideas for him to receive it, and he will willingly allow your brilliance to shine through.
4. Override the Fake with your Integrity
The Fake is a lethal form of toxic boss. He is even more destructive than the Bully, the Incompetent or the Micromanager, as his toxicity is more deceptive.
This is the type of boss who is sickeningly sweet to your face, but swiftly stabs you in the back the moment you turn around. He is the toxic boss who consciously plots and celebrates your failures.
There is no reasoning the psyche behind his toxicity. It could be anything: mindless jealousy based on his inadequacy, insecurity, sheer evil, anything. But the universal solution is to heighten your integrity.
You see, our first instinct to deal with a Fake is to mirror him. So we pretend to trust him and befriend him even as we fantasize his demise. But this is a dangerous response as with practice, this will steal our ability to trust many others who are genuine. Instead, use the Fake toxic boss as an opportunity to build your character. You’ve hopefully heard the adage, “kill him with kindness,” now’s the time to practice it. Become more genuine, honest and integrated with yourself and others. People around are intelligent enough to recognize phonies from the real thing, and your lofty traits will be rewarded.
5. Take the Seat of the Phantom, Willingly
At some point in your career, you might have worked for the Phantom, a ghost boss. Everyone knows he exists, but hardly anyone sees him.
This is the toxic boss who has the amazing ability to disappear at will, especially during critical situations. When there’s a crisis at work, you’ll find that he’s suddenly travelling, or on an unexpected personal emergency, or unreachable for whatever reason, all leaving you to face the bad music on your own.
Our advice: forget about him!
Practically, he simply isn’t around enough to be your boss. So become your own boss and step up to support your peers. Use your non-association with the Phantom boss to play the acting-manager. But do it with no expectations for yourself. It’s your chance to prepare for his role, and believe us, if not him, at least somebody else will be watching. When you become an undisputed expert at his role, the reward will undoubtedly follow.
6. Dance the Chameleon Waltz to Deal with Him
The Chameleon is a unique form of toxic boss, for he obviously comes with a multiple personality disorder! In fact, this is the type of toxic boss you’re most likely to face at work. At first, he appears the Fake, except that you have not yet caught on to it. Just when you think you’ve figured him out, he turns to you for advice and acts the Incompetent. When it’s time to execute that idea, he transforms into an undeniable Micromanager. And any time you refuse to play along, he brings out the Bully. Finally, he leaves you thoroughly exhausted and confused!
As “human” beings, we enjoy multiple dimensions of our being. We can be assertive at home and submissive at work, social with our first circle and quiet with strangers, clear on our career goals but unclear on the direction our personal life should take. It’s all a glorious part of being human!
Unfortunately, it’s the same with human toxicity. It comes in deviously-diverse forms. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have just one type of flaw to deal with, in your toxic boss. If that is the case, all it takes is a reasonable chat with him about how his work ethic affects you and shows him in poor light, and he no longer remains toxic. The problem continues when we deal with multiple facets of toxicity, rendering us frustrated and powerless.
We say, dance his Chameleon dance and enjoy the waltz!
When he roars with the Bully face, bring on your fearless face. When he shrinks and looks Incompetently confused, sooth him with your professional expertise. When he plays the Micromanager, roll with it for the time being, coz he will soon change, perhaps to the Phony face. Respond with Integrity. In course of this drama, you will realize one big truth about the toxic boss: it’s not about you!
His toxicity is never personal, and only reflects his own fears, insecurities and confusions. When you learn to dance his dance with awareness, you will also learn to rise above it no matter which card he plays. By associating with him and continuously diffusing his toxic attempts to undermine you, you become a strong professional who is able to remain consistently integrated despite external hostility.
We leave you with one final Zen-like quote from a path-breaking being, Walt Disney. He said, “I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it!”
Your toxic boss is your biggest competition. In repeatedly recognizing and disarming this external hostility, you realize your inner strength and harmony. So do not fear, even when your toxic boss is near!