How To Deal With A Toxic Boss

How To Deal With A Toxic Boss

Toxic boss bringing you down? Here are some tips for coping.

Toxic boss picture from Shutterstock

In Australia, workplace health and safety legislation effectively holds employers responsible for ensuring the emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing of employees.

Mental stress claims lodged by affected employees against their employer increased by 25% from 2001 to 2011. Although the proportion of stress claims specifically relating to “poor relationships with superiors” was not reported, a Medibank Private commissioned study reported that in 2007 the total cost of work related stress to the Australian economy was A$14.8 billion; the direct cost to employers alone in stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism was A$10.11 billion.

A recent study into the impact of systemic toxic behaviours exhibited by managers found that even one or two toxic behaviours, such as manipulating and intimidating, was enough to cause significant harm to employees’ mental and physical health.

The most common toxic behaviours exhibited by managers include:

  • Constantly seeks and needs praise
  • Has to win at all costs
  • Lapses into time consuming, self-praising anecdotes
  • Charms, cultivates and manipulates
  • Plays favourites
  • Takes credit for others’ work
  • Lies
  • Bullies and abuses others
  • Incessantly criticises others publicly
  • Has mood swings and temper tantrums
  • Treats all workplace interactions as a fault-finding exercise
  • Takes all decision making authority away
  • Micro manages everything you do
  • Promises to take action but later reneges
  • Ignores requests

Impact on wellbeing

Negative consequences for wellbeing reported by participants in the study included:


Anxiety, depression, burnout, cynicism, helplessness, social isolation, loss of confidence, feeling undervalued.


Anger, disappointment, distress, fear, frustration, mistrust, resentment, humiliation.


Insomnia, hair loss, weight loss/gain, headaches, stomach upsets, viruses and colds.

One way to deal with toxic managers is to escalate the risk and report it to senior management. However, a common theme in the study was frustration felt by participants when no action was taken after reporting the leaders’ toxic behaviours. Sometimes organisations are reluctant to take action against the offender, perhaps because they hold important relationships, bring in significant revenue, or for fear they will become litigious if challenged. Organisations that choose to ignore toxic leadership behaviours are likely to incur increased stress claims and litigation costs.

How can employee wellbeing be preserved? First, it is necessary to understand whether the offending leader is well intentioned, but unaware of their dysfunctional behaviours. If so, one strategy is to outline the specific behaviours that are causing distress to the leader in question, to let them know the impact of their behaviour through performance management processes. However, if it is felt there is deliberate intent on their part to get their own way at the expense of those around them, other options should be considered, such as commencing disciplinary action.

Individual coping strategies

If you are experiencing toxic leadership, and feel you are not in a position to report it, or leave the organisation, coping strategies reported in the study as helpful were:

  • Seeking social support from colleagues, mentor, friends and family
  • Seeking professional support, i.e. Employee Assistance Program, counsellor, psychologist, general practitioner
  • Seeking advice from Human Resources
  • Undertaking health and well-being activities, i.e. diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises
  • Restructuring your thoughts about the incidents in question to maintain a sense of calm and manage your state of mind.

What not to do

Coping strategies that were reported as having negative consequences or prolonging stress and fear of their leader were:

  • Confronting the leader
  • Avoiding, ignoring or bypassing the leader
  • Whistle blowing
  • Ruminating on the wrongs done and reliving the feelings of anger and frustration
  • Focusing on work
  • Taking sick leave (short-term relief only).

Individuals regularly on the receiving end of toxic behaviours commonly start questioning themselves, doubting their capabilities and feeling locked into their current situation/role/organisation.

To protect against such frustration, ensure you have an up-to-date career plan, clearly outlining your strengths, achievements, personal values, work preferences, development opportunities, and employability. Keep your resume and online profile up to date and ensure you are well networked in your occupation and industry — all part of a contingency plan to exit the toxic workplace situation should it become untenable.The Conversation

Vicki Webster is a PhD Candidate at Griffith University. Paula Brough is Professor and Director, Social & Organisational Psychology Research Unit at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • There’s some good advice in there. I’ve been in that very situation. It’s not nice.
    Luckily I was able to recognise the affect that person’s behaviour was having on me. And (actually, like the rest of the company), left for pastures new. Which was realistically the only option for me – the toxicity stemmed from the owner’s “pet” employee. Thus the battle to remove the toxicity was quite daunting. Choose your battles.

    • ‘Connected’ people are the worst ones to have to try to deal with when they’re being problematic. That attitude of ‘I know the boss so I can do what I like’ is awfully prevalent in the IT industry (and probably most industries). I’ve even had one situation where the CEO knew the person was a problem to the point of bringing the company down but felt like his hands were tied because the toxic person’s boss (a general manager and the main enabler of the toxic person’s behaviour) was too essential to the company to stir the pot.

      What choice do you have really, other than to leave? Staying doesn’t fix anything and only makes work a nightmare for you.

  • Honestly? Get out get out get out get out. I have dealt with these types before, Ive cleaned up after a lot of them and the one time I had to report to one… well they did lie to HR, asked staff to committ fraud which should be an instant dismiss under the code of conduct and was part of the problem that saw an entire department made redundant.

    The best advice is to keep tabs on them as much as never having to work with them again. There are just some people you very much would like to work for your competitors.

  • If they’re anywhere near influencing your chain of command, or scrapping your work so that it isn’t recognised by the chain of command to the right level of excellence, you can “cope” all you like, but your career there is gone. Get out. If you’re lucky, you can transfer within the company, but that isn’t always possible in smaller companies or if this person can prohibit you from transferring somehow. If not, no matter what it costs to get out, do so, sooner rather than later.

  • Oh, and going to HR is in most cases only an announcement that, “I’m going to make more work for you and force you to go on your back foot to defend the company against wrongdoing toward me.” I.e., it won’t win you any friends. In my situation, having HR deny that the manager was the problem, and having them turn about and blame *me* was soul crushing. It took 8 months for a “survivor” of that individual’s bullying to hear about my situation and stand with me to HR when I insisted that they stop claiming that they’d never heard similar complaints about this manager, because 3 years prior, this other employee had the exact same tactics used against her. At that point, they realised they had to admit that it was worth a lip-service investigation, lest they be found negligent, and ended up lying to me 6 months later when they claimed they’d found no misbehaviour by the manager in question. I’d been the department’s star employee before this. No one’s safe. I lost nearly a quarter million dollars of unvested incentive compensation when forced out by this cretin. I’d have been better off leaving immediately.

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