Subtle Signs of an Abusive and Toxic Manager

A long time ago – after my first truly horrible interaction with my boss – I sat, stunned, in front of my laptop. In what I had thought was going to be an uneventful one-on-one meeting, she opened with, “You don’t seem happy here, and we don’t want people here who are unhappy. I would be more than happy to find you another job somewhere else.”

I needed this job, and I wasn’t unhappy – though I also wasn’t shy about suggesting ways to improve workflows and highlighting recurring points of friction. My feelings were hurt, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her intentions were good, I thought. She just worded her concern poorly.

A couple of months later, we had another Zoom call. It went about as well as the first. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never been questioned, I suggest you watch your tone!”

That’s when I realized that this was turning into a pattern. I was dealing with a toxic boss.

What is a toxic boss, and why does it suck so much to have one?

A toxic boss is a manager who demoralizes and damages the people who report to them. Their repeated, disruptive behavior drives employees to become disengaged, diminishes their sense of belonging, and takes away their autonomy and sense of purpose – all of which are vital for thriving at work.

Here’s what you need to know about working with toxic bosses – and how to preserve your peace of mind.

Subtle and real signs of a toxic boss.

There are good bosses and there are not-so-good bosses. But while some managers can be disorganized, distant, or even a little annoying, that doesn’t mean they’re toxic. So what makes a truly harmful boss?

1. They don’t listen.

When dealing with a toxic boss, your feedback, suggestions, and concerns go unacknowledged.

There is no growth when you have a boss who makes it almost impossible to communicate upward and convey mistakes. And when you can’t communicate upward, you lose out on valuable opportunities to learn and contribute ideas and might feel like your work or ideas don’t matter.

2. They micromanage.

At one of my jobs, we had to fill out a spreadsheet every day detailing our work activities. If we had a day that was a little less productive than others, we’d get a ping on Slack.

Micromanagement can be an annoying habit of any boss, but it’s also a common hallmark of toxicity. Micromanaging becomes toxic when the boss needs to have a say in everything going on – even when you’ve proven your ability and accountability. When they’re quick to take credit for work done by others. It really is a question of control and a lack of trust.

3. They don’t foster growth.

When working under a toxic boss, you might find your job to be one-note and monotonous. As time stretches on, you don’t get any new responsibilities or tasks, your work isn’t recognized, and you might feel stifled and stuck. As my former toxic manager told me when I asked for more duties: “The role is the role and it’s not going to change.”

A toxic boss demotivates. They allow very little leeway in how a subordinate conducts the work that is assigned to them.

4. They act differently around their own managers.

Toxic bosses act differently based on who’s observing them. This can be especially problematic because colleagues at your boss’ level or above might not see how they’re treating their subordinates or get an unbiased view of what’s happening day-to-day.

For the subordinates, having a boss who’s chummy with higher-ups can feel isolating and make it more intimidating to raise concerns about their toxic behavior.

5. They make you feel insecure.

Toxic bosses diminish your sense of belonging and connection to the organization. Not feeling safe to speak up and constantly worrying about job security is incredibly mentally taxing.

The uncertainty and the rumination that a toxic boss brings is hugely draining to any individual on the receiving end. By undermining their employees’ sense of security, they burn out people on their teams and in organizations quickly.

6. They have unreasonable expectations.

Once, when my team was feeling burnt out from the high-volume output we were expected to hit every day, we raised our concerns in a team meeting. Our manager’s response? “A lot of other companies have an even higher output than us.”

Toxic bosses are often inflexible about their expectations and demand an extreme workload, fast turnarounds, and weekend Slack responses. These demands increase employee anxiety and fear, according to the surgeon general’s report, and can undermine work-life harmony, which the report names as a key component for employee well-being.

Tips for dealing with a toxic boss…

Once you’ve realized your boss is toxic, what can you do about it? There are a few approaches you can take:

Give them feedback.

Some managers might not be aware of just how toxic their actions are. Your first approach should try to talk it out with them. This can also be helpful in determining if your boss is truly toxic — disruptive, rude, and self-centered — or if their management style is simply misaligned with what you’re used to.

Try understanding (not excusing) their behavior.

Toxic behavior often comes from a place of insecurity. Try to understand the rules of that behavior so that you might offer something that gives a little bit of a boost to the boss and they become a little less needy of squashing everybody else around. The least you can do is try…

Make other connections.

It’s easy to feel stuck in a bad manager-subordinate relationship, but you don’t have to surrender to the situation. Instead, make other professional connections with potential mentors, both within and outside of your organization. Fostering these alternative relationships can open up new career opportunities and confidants to help you get out of your predicament.

Look around the organization, expand your point of view, expand your network, and find yourself a pathway to another group with another boss. Many organizations are big enough to give you alternatives that allow you to pursue another option so you don’t have to be stuck in a position that is just too hard for you, individually, to fix.

Ask for help.

When you’re working for a toxic person, you only have so much power.

Before it gets too much to handle, turn to someone else for advice on how to navigate the situation or how to get out. It can be a trusted mentor, someone in human resources, or your skip-level manager (a.k.a., your boss’s boss). Sometimes — like if your toxic boss is part of a larger toxic management team or reflects a deeper toxic culture — it really should be someone outside of your workplace.

Document specific instances of your boss’ abusive behavior, and be strategic in whom you raise your concerns, especially if there’s a risk of your toxic boss retaliating if they find out you’re discussing them.

Join forces with others.

Chances are, your boss isn’t exhibiting their problematic behavior just to you. Speak with trusted colleagues about their experiences with the boss and then raise your concerns to someone you trust as a group. When multiple people come together, It becomes clear that this is a situation. It’s not just one disgruntled employee.”

Get out!

If you’ve exhausted all other options and you can afford to get out, then get out. Of course, quitting immediately without another job lined up isn’t a workable option for everyone. But between work hours, get to work on your exit strategy. Start searching for a new job and expanding your network.

If you do leave, be direct about why during your exit interview. This gives the company data and documentation they can act on in the future. Just do it like the professional you are. There’s no need to one-up your soon-to-be-former boss and showcase toxic behaviors yourself on your way out.

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