When professional activity causes constant stress, it is necessary, as part of a strategy for better communication, to identify the traits of a toxic boss and decipher problematic behaviours.

On average, people spend around 99,100 hours at work, which is about 11 years. Unfortunately, these 11 years do not comprise an easy journey for all employees. The challenges of professional life are complex, and an unhappy relationship with one’s superiors is among the most common issues at work.

The portrait of a toxic boss

The portrait of a toxic manager takes on different shapes and sizes. However, they all have a common underlying cause, which translates into a series of similar reactions and manifestations. For example, most toxic bosses take pleasure in instilling fear. Such leaders seek to impose their authority at all costs, gain the obedience of others, and evade responsibility when they make mistakes; they hunt for flaws and do not value the qualities of their subordinates; they change like the weather, and are unyielding to new opinions; they are driven by their egos and always ready to humiliate and divide, and they are often vengeful.

The flaws of a problematic superior can refer to:

  • emotional abuse (frequent use of sarcasm, labels or value judgments, and threats);
  • overloading employees with tasks and granting short deadlines for their completion;
  • raised voice (shouting);
  • the use of unjustified punishments (denial of due salary increases, of holidays, and so on);
  • physical aggression.

Toxic bosses are leaders who lack objectivity and transparency. Because they are motivated by the desire for excessive control, they are capable of resorting to unacceptable methods (personal attacks, risky decisions, blackmail, manipulation or abuse of power) in order to achieve their goals.

“Equally, toxic bosses can be indecisive, weak, and maybe even incompetent. They can be easily influenced, manipulated, and defeated in negotiations. Toxic bosses can be chaotic, ineffective, and insecure. They will take on the role of the helpless victim, not assuming their responsibilities and always blaming others for their failures. Toxic bosses do not sanction the inappropriate behaviours, abuse or incompetence of certain employees,” states journalist Adrian Vascu, emphasising that the abuse of power and the power void are equally toxic.

On the other hand, a toxic manager is not necessarily a demanding, incisive, and uncompromising boss. An executive who respects the same standards he or she demands of others, who acts competently, has a clear vision, and solves problems promptly, who makes difficult decisions without hesitation, and communicates his or her grievances along with the necessary arguments is, in fact, a leader who inspires confidence instead of fear.

Typology of management positions

In a 2018 Monster poll, the majority of U.S. respondents said they currently have or recently had a toxic boss (76%), while only 5% declared that they are friends with their superior, and 19% categorise their boss as a mentor or person they can rely on when needed.

The same survey paints the portrait of the toxic leader, revealing their main characteristics: hunger for power (26%), incompetence (17%), need for control (18%), and lack of involvement (15%).

Through their leadership style, bosses are often the ones who determine whether subordinates keep their jobs or not. “When it comes to resignation, studies show that employees take this step because of their relationship with their boss,” states Eduard Ezeanu, career counsellor.

Personal and professional imbalances

In the long term, the stressful conditions created by a difficult manager cause countless professional and personal imbalances.

“A toxic boss sees your flaws, but never your [good] qualities, uses you to the greatest possible point, but never values ​​you, and, on the contrary, tries to prove to you how useless and worthless you are,” explains psychologist Silvia Ungureanu. In such a situation, the effects of maintaining a dynamic that does not guarantee respect for human dignity are serious.

When you find yourself in such unfavourable circumstances, the first step towards change is to evaluate to what extent your superior’s attitude affects you:

  • Does it affect your credibility? (The boss constantly rejects your ideas, minimises or even denies your effort to solve tasks);
  • Does it convey a sense of uncertainty? (Objectives and tasks are vaguely formulated, and feedback is completely missing);
  • Does it impose on you a rhythm and a way of working that is far from your values ​​and ideas? (The team leader completely ignores the particularities of the team members);
  • Does it hinder you from making real connections with your coworkers? (The leader does not take into account the need to develop a sense of belonging to the group);
  • Does it induce insecurity? (Management makes arbitrary, non-transparent decisions, and goes against known procedures).

Over time, a professional activity carried out under stressful conditions can lead to depression. As a consequence of being constantly subjected to devaluation, employees begin to doubt their own abilities and start believing that nothing they do is good enough to produce the expected results. Thus, self-esteem decreases more and more, and workers end up under-appreciating themselves to the point where they even give up making an effort to develop.

Productivity is another area deeply influenced by the behaviour of toxic bosses. In poorly managed teams, employees are 50% less productive and 44% less profitable for their companies, according to a Gallup study. Workers coordinated by an agreeable manager have better health and ask for fewer days off—more specifically, they have a 27% lower risk of illness, compared to employees who have a disagreeable manager.

On the same note, a study conducted by Finnish researchers shows that the risk of sick leave decreases by 46% among employees led by a benevolent manager.

According to research from Georgia State University, microaggressions to which employees are repeatedly exposed determine depression and low productivity. By microaggressions, we mean subtle attacks, direct insults, invalidations, and discrimination based on certain characteristics (age, gender, marital status, and so on).

Survival strategies in the relationship with a toxic boss

What can you do to diminish the impact of the behaviour of a toxic manager?

First of all, you must know your potential very well. You need to know what your rights, obligations, and requirements are at work and what your superior can ask you to do and what they cannot.

The development of communication skills and the use of active listening techniques are equally important to maintain satisfactory professional relationships, even with difficult people.

If these methods do not bring the desired results, you can try to restrict interactions with the manager. It would be impossible to avoid contact altogether, but you can limit the occasions on which you are around them, provided that this does not interfere with the performance of work duties.

If they accuse you of not understanding their directives, you can prove otherwise by taking notes or repeating their words to confirm that you got the instructions right.

Another strategy is to do your job well, both for your satisfaction and to not give your manager any reasons to criticise you. At the same time, you must take into account the ease with which negative behaviours are adopted and the risk that you too might become an abuser. It would also be best to call their attention to the abuses committed.

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If the problems are not resolved by being directly addressed by those involved, the next step would be to report the issues to the next in command or the appropriate department, such as human resources.

“It is also important to have the courage to object in a civilised but firm manner. The support of friends and/or family members will help you maintain self-confidence and prevent you from devaluing yourself as a result of the conflict with the toxic boss,” says psychologist Silvia Ungureanu.

In extreme cases, resignation might prove to be the only solution. Keep in mind that it should come as a last resort, after you’ve tried everything possible to manage your relationship with your manager, in order to make sure that you won’t transfer your communication problems to the next job, explains psychologist Lucian Negoiţă.

Regardless of the situation, it is important to know that inaction is not a reliable long-term solution. You must have the courage to face the truth and express it to avoid being held back by helplessness or fear of change, even if it means finding another job.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in social work counselling.