No one should have to deal with the toxicity of working under a difficult boss. On average, employees spend the majority of their time at work. If you are dealing with a bad boss, this can negatively influence your mental health and wellbeing. A study by Gallup even found that one in two Americans have left their jobs to get away from their bosses, and another Gallup study found that American workers are the “most stressed in the world”.
A relationship with your boss is like any other relationship: it requires nurturing and mutual effort. Naturally, there are many kinds of bad bosses out there; whether it’s a boss who micromanages, or shows favoritism towards one person, or someone who degrades and disrespects you and the work you do—it is never an acceptable situation. However, how do you identify a bad supervisor to begin with? Let’s take a look.
Is it chronic?
If you feel at all disrespected, disregarded, or even just frustrated in any way by your boss, take some time to first observe their behavior while at work: is this a single occurrence or does this happen more frequently and with regularity? Was something unusual or out of their control causing them to act this way? How many things does your boss do well versus what do they do poorly?
Communication, communication, communication
If you detect any kind of friction with your boss, remember that you can come a long way with simple open and honest communication. Instead of simply giving feedback, try making clear requests for the kind of support you need in order to do your job well, and explain your work style to avoid any misunderstandings. Establish that sense of trust between the two of you and try to be authentic as possible. Create mutual respect by valuing the other person for their inherent human worth.
It may not be your first instinct to do so but attempt to empathize with your boss. What is causing them to behave this way? Try putting yourself in their shoes and asking open-ended questions, and it may help you understand what is going on inside their head. However, remember the importance of setting clear boundaries, not just for your own sake, but for the sake of being as open and honest as possible about it too.
Predict and self-reflect
Self-reflection is a practice many people can benefit from, and while it may not be your first instinct to do so, consider looking at your own actions and behaviors and taking responsibility where necessary instead of solely blaming your boss for any negative friction. However, if friction does exist, try not to let it affect your work or work ethic—this shows your professionalism. Additionally, if you can identify what themes trigger certain negative behaviors in your boss, it can help you stay ahead of or even avoid whatever outburst may follow. Nonetheless, this should never have to come at the cost of your own safety or wellbeing.
The importance of mental health
Speaking of wellbeing, if your relationship with your boss is causing mental turmoil, remember to engage with your support network as often as possible. Whether it’s friends, family, or your dog—taking care of your mental health should always be a priority. Exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep for optimum physical health. Consider taking some time off from work if you feel like you need to get away from it all. Just remember what is and isn’t inside your scope of control: you can’t control others’ behaviors, but you can determine the way you respond to it.
Further options to consider
If you feel like things are getting out of hand, it could be wise to consult with HR—these kinds of cases are what they specialize in, after all. Make sure to research how well HR has responded to employees’ complaints before you make the approach. Also consider researching other opportunities within your organization—just because you have a difficult boss, doesn’t mean you’re supposed to leave the organization, especially if it’s an organization you really love working for.
Don’t stay in an impossible situation
You feel like you’ve tried everything: reaching out to others, communicating your needs, attempting to sympathize, but it’s just not getting any better. If you’ve reached this point, perhaps it’s time to consider leaving the position. There is no shame in resigning from a job. In the end, what is most important is that you are content in your position, and it is not causing you to feel degraded, anxious, unreasonably stressed, or—hopefully not, of course—dehumanized. No one should have to deal with a boss that makes them feel that way. If you do decide to resign from your position, consider taking these steps:
- Secure your next position before mentioning anything about resigning.
- When you do, give notice ahead of time.
- Make a clear plan for transitioning: communicate what you’re planning to do before leaving.
- Prepare yourself for the possibility of being let go early. A truly toxic supervisor may be capable of simply making it your last day there when you mention your plans of leaving.
What have I learned?
My own story of dealing with a toxic boss can hopefully bring some insight if you are dealing with a similar situation. I worked directly under someone who had already lost three other people that worked in the position before me, so I didn’t start with a very good feeling. However, I (somewhat naively perhaps) thought it would be different with me. As you can maybe already tell, I was wrong.
Working directly as the only full-time person (other staffers were all part-time) under a boss who is constantly extremely and unreasonably stressed about the smallest, most insignificant little detail, already puts a lot of pressure on you. Add into the mix that this supervisor gives minimal guidance on tasks, and then berates you for not doing them properly; will scold you for the slightest mistake (if you can even call it that); and talks negatively behind your back to your direct coworkers—you can see how a situation like that does not sustain itself.
It usually doesn’t feel good to leave a position. It might even feel like you’re “giving up”. However, I no longer think of it that way. If a toxic boss is so blatantly unaware of what their behavior is causing to the people around them—or simply doesn’t care—then that is not the type of person I would want to work for. After clear, open, and honest communication; after plainly stating my boundaries and saying what did and didn’t work for me—it still wasn’t enough. My supervisor was incapable of making a change in her behavior, so I left. And it proved to be the best decision that I could have ever made.
Do what’s best for you
In the end, just remember that a company that doesn’t value its employees is likely not a company that will sustain itself for long. If they do not appreciate the quality of work that you have to offer, then that is to their disadvantage. Never forget that you deserve to stand up for yourself, as long as you take careful consideration before taking any drastic action. Always first make that effort to reach out to the person that is antagonizing you, but if you have tried all you could and there seems to be little to no improvement, that is what we would call a toxic situation. Just remember: there will always be another job or another opportunity that will be equally or even more amazing. You are deserving of finding that work opportunity that sees the value and unique perspective you bring to their organization, and you always deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and appreciation.
Abbajay, M. (2018, September 7). What to Do When You Have a Bad Boss. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/09/what-to-do-when-you-have-a-bad-boss
Castrillon, C. (2021, March 7). How To Handle A Difficult Boss. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/03/07/how-to-handle-a-difficult-boss/?sh=4458e96c482f
Flaxington, B.D. (2018, February 12). Dealing With a Difficult Boss. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understand-other-people/201802/dealing-difficult-boss
Gallup. (2015). State of the American Manager. Analytics and Advice for Leaders. In Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/services/182216/state-american-manager-report.aspx
Liu, J. (2021, June 15). U.S. workers are among the most stressed in the world, new Gallup report finds. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/15/gallup-us-workers-are-among-the-most-stressed-in-the-world.html
The Muse Editors (2022, January 24). 10 Brilliant Tips for Dealing With a Difficult Boss. The Muse. https://www.themuse.com/advice/10-brilliant-tips-for-dealing-with-a-difficult-boss
Indeed Editorial Team (2023, February 27). 8 Strategies for Dealing With a Difficult Boss. Indeed. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/how-to-deal-with-a-difficult-boss