I don't think I need to explain who is called a "toxic person".
Just hearing this expression, you must have immediately recollected an acquaintance or colleague, after talking with whom, you feel as if you have been stung by a scorpion. Unfortunately, bosses can be like that too. At my first job, when I was still a student, the boss was not all fluffy and cuddly either. I realised one simple thing back then: alas, there is nothing you can do about someone else's character. Will you try to reform a grown person, and higher than you in rank into the bargain? There are usually two options: to quit or to tolerate. The latter one is not for the fainthearted, but if there is a benefit to you in the job irrespective of the individual, it can work if you know what to do and how to behave.
Symptoms of the "disease": how to identify a toxic boss
To begin with let's figure out how to identify a truly toxic boss. After all, there's a risk that you'll put your boss in this category just because they scold you for missing deadlines or you simply don't like them. Remember, nagging and even reprimands are okay as long as they are justified, professional, within a formal procedure and documented. Toxicity is not just a difficult character, but an unconscious or conscious desire to manipulate, humiliate and thus realize their own goals (even if the goal is only self-assertion).
So if you're not sure whether your boss is really toxic, go through this list of toxicity manifestations:
- There are constant emotional swings at work
Your boss now praises you, smiles, says hello to everyone, and fifteen minutes later yells and throws staplers at people. There is nothing preceded the transition from one state to another, - it is as if a switch has clicked in the boss which no one else can see. At such moments it seems to you that you may have triggered such a bad mood, and you begin to frantically recollect where exactly you might have done the wrong thing. As a result, you are haunted by constant anxiety, guilt and insecurity at work, because you cannot find rational reasons for your boss's anger. That's why you tiptoe around him, afraid to breathe, and your work turns into a game of hide and seek.
- Your boss does not give clear instructions, and then criticizes the result
Vague wording is the curse of many companies. But in a creative environment the performer (employee) can still come up with something on their own and get around it, but it is a living hell when it comes to product development, as an example. Sometimes such vague wording, or rather the boss's laziness to specify and elaborate occasionally brings about a collapse of the entire product. And who does the boss blame for this? Of course, the employee, to whom they shifted the responsibility. Though, as a leader, the boss should have borne it. In addition, work with a lack of clear instructions is always exhausting, the progress is slower, not to mention the final result and its failure to meet the expectations.
- Your boss's jokes come across as insults
This is the most popular symptom of a toxic person. Keep in mind, that if someone's jokes make you feel offended and uncomfortable, then they are bad jokes or not jokes at all. And when you tell your boss that it is unacceptable to joke with you this way, he immediately plays at being a victim and thus tries to swap places with you: "What's the big deal? Why are you so touchy? I am just being friendly".
This can also include discrimination: if the boss is prejudiced against some of the employees solely because of their common characteristics that have nothing to do with their professional activity (for example, they claim that women cannot be managers) - this is definitely not the norm. It might be said in jest, but comes across as half in fun, whole in earnest.
- The boss blackmails or threatens you
I do not mean a gun pointed at you - it's not a movie - when I refer to threats and blackmail. I mean, unobtrusive remarks like: "Well, there is no point in keeping an employee who refuses to put in overtime with the boss". Or: "You know, N also set his sights on a bonus and agrees right away to work overtime ..." In short, a clear symptom of toxicity: the boss is forever trying to "load you with something" against your will, and to gain your consent uses such levers as your fear of losing the job or in-house competition.
- Your accomplishments and experience are devalued
You were able to close a super complex deal, but instead of a thank you, you hear "That was easy." Or at a general conference, the manager mentioned that it was the achievement of the entire department or even his own. At the same time, the mistakes you make are not "distributed" throughout the team; on the contrary, they are occasionally exaggerated. In short, your mistakes are yours only, but your victories are your boss's ones.
What to do if your boss exhibits "toxic symptoms"
As I said at the beginning of the article, there are only two ways out: either to quit or to tolerate. After I suffered such horrible experience in my youth, I decided that the latter option was not for me - if it happens again, I will definitely leave. Because there are a lot of despot employers out there, and it would not be hard to come across another one.
So it's not such a torment to look for a normal boss who appreciates what I do.
However, I by no means encourage you to quit without trying other measures first. After all, not all poisons are deadly - sometimes you may well find an antidote to them. So, you can try the following when faced with a toxic boss:
- Focus on goals
We all go to work with a specific goal in mind. More often than not, the purpose is money. But I recommend you to find something more global and inspiring, something that will support you in times of need and help you overcome obstacles. The mere fact of earning money is usually not enough for that. Be specific: maybe you dream of a house on the sea shore, or of your family not wanting for anything. Work for that, not for the boss and interacting with them. A toxic boss is just about the working conditions, not the job itself.
- Self-monitor your progress
If your boss is toxic, it's foolish to expect them to objectively evaluate and help you in your career growth. You should record your own achievements and praise yourself for them. To do this, regularly plan tasks, keep a diary, put successfully completed assignments in a separate list, for example Planner in Microsoft 365 is useful for this. Ideally, build a career roadmap and follow it. You should recognize your skills, competences and successes to remain confident in yourself regardless of what your boss says about them. After all, you know you're doing great anyway.
- Keep the distance
You can minimize the risks and 'toxic poisoning' occasions if you act strictly as a subordinate with your supervisor. Toxic people very often tend to shorten the distance to an informal one just to learn more facts about you, which they can use for their own ends. So, set boundaries right away and stop the toxic boss from trying to become closer with you - otherwise you'll be putting a weapon in their hands.
It's never too late to set boundaries! Even if you think they don't exist anymore. Just after the next inappropriate joke or situation, remind your boss of the differences in your positions and that you are in the office solely to do your job. If you boss openly attacks you, I advise you to fight back firmly, otherwise the manager will simply ignore your attempts to defend yourself: "I'd appreciate it if you could change your tone so that we can discuss the situation calmly, like two mature professionals".
If you're a soft person and have a hard time standing up for yourself, you can use avoidance tactics - simply walk away when your manager starts to show signs of toxicity.
Learning by topic
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- Keep your work and personal life apart
This is universal advice that I would give even if your boss is a wallflower by comparison. Never mix work and personal life! In case the former becomes toxic, the latter will remain intact and will be your own "refuge" where you can restore your inner resources and calm down. Otherwise, you risk being completely poisoned.
Keeping your work and personal life apart is simple enough: don't answer work emails when you are at home; don't work from home after business hours; fill your free time with pleasant activities instead of thinking about tomorrow, and try to diversify your leisure time so that your life does not revolve only around work.
- Use "aikido psychology"
In psychology "Aikido" means a strategy when you agree with everything your opponent says, including aggressive and unpleasant things. At the same time, you do not take these things into account, of course, and do not believe them - you simply go easy on your interlocutor, and then gently but firmly defend your opinion. An agreement that comes before a confrontation is always disarming and helps take the heat out of the situation. For example, your boss tells you that you are worthless. In response, you nod, say that "Yes, I am". And then say: "Just clarify, please, why exactly am I like this?" and steer your conversation to facts, not emotions.
This technique is good specifically against direct attacks, but it requires a lot of mental strength and preparation, so it's not suitable for everyone. For example, I have never had enough patience to use it, but what if you are patient enough?
- Turn for help to a higher manager
If there is one, of course, unless you work in a startup where there is only one boss. Otherwise, your boss probably has a boss, a mentor or a partner - in short, someone he takes a cue from. I wouldn't recommend writing a complaint straight away - try to start by discussing the situation in a gentle and sensitive way; make it clear that you are finding it hard to work under your manager for such and such reasons and you are trying to figure out how to go forward. Also consider changing your position within the company by contacting the HR department. You may just be able to move to a different unit and get a new boss.
I would like to recommend you one thing at the end - always remain professional in what you do. When you know exactly what you bring to the company, you are aware of your value, you are doing a good job, not just feign work, then no one will be able to make you doubt yourself. Moreover, you'll be able to even dictate the terms to your boss! After all, highly professional employees are valuable and nobody wants to lose them. Build up your efficiency and expertise, but, most importantly, don't forget that you should love your work. Don't reach the boiling point - act, even if acting means quitting.