Your Toxic Boss: A Survival Guide

I can remember oh-so-clearly a rainy work day some years ago; my red-faced boss was pacing in his office and screaming at someone on a conference call.  I don’t remember exactly what he was annoyed about (although it was minor); I do remember, however, the windows on the building across the street.

I counted them while he was screaming (and since he was still screaming, I counted them again).  There were 84 windows, with the lucky office workers in that building going about their day oblivious to the tantrum that was unfolding. On that day and other days, the window counting became my way of distancing myself from my boss’s epic craziness: the fairly-constant blaming, swearing, shouting, and threatening.  (In hindsight, many years later, it is actually kind of funny to picture him screaming at the little triangle-shaped conference phone on his table.)

Unfortunately, too many of us live through similar moments on a daily basis; whether it’s a boss or a co-worker, toxic people make it hard to feel positive about heading in to work.  And, what’s worse, their toxicity can cause serious stress-related health issues, if you’re exposed to it for long enough.  If you happen to be a target - if the toxicity is directed at you - it can make you question your abilities and really shake your confidence. And if you’re not the direct target, the “secondhand smoke” of their angry flames toward others can still take its toll on you.

Here’s what’s even crazier: often, those same toxic bosses can also be charming, for brief periods of time, and lead others to believe they are the organization’s “superhero,” rescuing people from incompetence and swooping in to save the day. It can feel like two sides of the same person: the days you’re in their favor, you bask in their approval, warmth and inclusion. Today, you’re in that inner circle, and outside the circle are those other, poor misfits. Tomorrow, however, you make a tiny misstep, and you’re out in the cold again, subject to verbal abuse until you get back in line.

Toxic bosses crave attention, power, and crisis. They need the adrenaline rush of “saving” others; they feel unmoored when they’re surprised or out of the loop on something; they need to feel that you’ll do what they say, no questions asked. They’re often highly perfectionistic but can’t articulate exactly what they want from you. In short, they desire complete control in a situation that can never allow them to control every detail.

So if you’re unlucky enough to have a toxic boss, what can you do?

- Read the mood before engaging, if you can. In my experience, managing a toxic boss required quickly assessing his mood and adjusting my plans accordingly.  Like other toxic bosses, he was mercurial; he could be in a jolly mood one minute and then slamming his hand on the table the next.  If I walked near his office and sensed a storm brewing, I’d delay discussions about anything that could be a trigger.  Of course, if your boss is chronically over-booked, or if you have very time-sensitive topics, you may need to face the mood head-on.

- Learn what’s most important to your boss. Even the most toxic bosses have at least one employee who “gets” them and gives them the outcome they seek. Figure out who that person is in your organization, and learn from that person. Do they provide daily update emails? Do they triple-check their work before sending it to the boss? Copy their tricks for successfully managing-up, even if those tricks go against your natural style.

- Help them succeed, but don’t help them “get high.” Your boss starts in on you for something. You get riled up in return. Your boss gets the adrenaline and attention he/she needs to feel alive again. Rinse, cycle, repeat. Instead of being part of that cycle, give them the business result they want, but stay calm. Keep your answers to a minimum: “hmmmm...” or “I hear you...” and try to end the conversation as soon as you can.

- Don’t internalize your “villain” status. Every superhero needs a villain, or ten, to fight. Your boss may have specific colleagues targeted as villains, or may switch it up daily. When it’s your turn getting the heat, recognize that it’s NOT about you, deep down. Sure, you have to deliver what the boss wants for work, but then you don’t have to actually believe what he/she says about you. Most people with a toxic boss start to question themselves and their abilities, so you need to find other people who validate your skills and help you get re-centered after an attack.

- Take care of yourself, outside of work. It takes a lot of conscious effort to cope with the stress of a toxic boss. I took up kickboxing (I must admit, occasionally I pictured my boss’s face on the sparring pad), ate better, started meditating and cultivated interests outside of work.  I also worked hard to leave his bullying at the office door and not bring it home to obsess about, which would only increase the hours of stress I experienced. At the time, I had too much of my own identity tied up in my job, anyway, so the mental distance I had to learn to create was good for me in the long run.  And, in the end, I left the organization to find work I liked better and a boss (myself) who didn’t scream at others.

If you’re in this situation, reach out to build a support system for yourself and surround yourself with people who reflect back to you the good work you do.   Practice self-care.  Build boundaries and awareness of your own ways you might trigger the person with your work style, while still recognizing that the drama is not your fault.

And find something to count while your boss is on a rant.

Have you ever worked with a toxic boss?  Any tips for dealing with one, if you aren’t yet ready to quit?

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