Here's how to spot one and what to do about it.
Claire Sanguedolce | Brand and Operations Manager at Kip
I remember the exact moment when I realized I needed to quit my job. I was wearing a wrist brace, frantically running back and forth between giving savasana massages in a 98-degree room and laundering dirty towels, while also responsible for checking in every yoga student that walked through the door. Mentally and physically exhausted, injured, underpaid, overwhelmed, and sweaty as hell, it was then that I realized I’d hit “job rock bottom”.
Toxic bosses, unsurprisingly, have a pretty damaging effect on their employees’ wellbeing. A recent study by the University of Manchester exploring employees’ mental health while working for leaders who display psychopathic and/or narcissistic traits not only feel more depressed due to their bosses’ bullying tactics but are also more likely to engage in undesirable behavior at work themselves. Another study by research firm Gallup found that out of 7,272 surveyed U.S. adults, more than half had left their job to get away from their managers to improve their overall life at some point in their career.
So, what really makes a boss “toxic”? Read on to learn about the most common “red flags” so you can identify a toxic boss before you end up with a sprained wrist, broken dreams, and an empty wallet:
Overly controlling bosses stifle creativity and breed a stressful work environment. As a yoga teacher, our CEO implemented a policy in which our classes were harshly “graded” on a weekly basis. We were paid according to our scores. While this policy was originally meant to keep class quality in check, it evolved into a nerve-wracking and ineffective strategy that increased teacher anxiety rather than performance.
Credit-stealing & responsibility-avoiding
You’ve seen this one before. It’s the boss that’s always right and you’re always wrong – and there’s nothing you can do about it. This “my way or the highway” attitude makes for a burnt out workforce. This type of manager doesn’t give praise to their staff when they deserve it. Instead, they steal the spotlight from others, destroying team morale and boosting imposter syndrome in the process. Don’t expect them to own up to any mistakes or clean up the messes they make – they’ll likely blame others over taking personal responsibility.
“Black and white” behavior
Toxic bosses might make a decision to move in one direction on Monday morning and then by Tuesday afternoon, they’re already charging full-force in the opposite direction. A manager that displays “black and white” behavior is erratic and changes their mind more frequently than is healthy, resulting in confusion and anxiety among employees.
Often times, controlling bosses are also bullies. They use fear tactics to manipulate their employees into submission. In my previous workplace, this showed up as name calling, aggressive and emotional phone calls and threatening emails, humiliation, and gossip. I felt unsafe and after repeated attempts to stop the abuse, it became clear that nothing was going to change. “Just suck it up,” said a fellow employee, “This is just the way it is.”
Narcissistic bosses may display a lack of concern for others’ interests entirely. This makes it nearly impossible for a healthy workplace to develop and thrive because a narcissistic leader leaves no space for negotiation, compromise, or positive growth. This quickly leads to low self-worth and productivity among employees and high turnover in the workplace.
Mental (and physical) absence
Managers must be present, attentive, and supportive of their staff. Toxic managers are often checked out. They don’t provide clear guidance and open communication for employees, which means they aren’t watching out for toxic workplace dynamics that might develop right under their noses.
So, now that you understand the typical characteristics of a toxic boss and their impact in the workplace, what can you do about it?
While it’s never an employee’s responsibility to “cure” a toxic boss, here are a few things you can do to prevent a toxic relationship between you and your manager from forming in the first place:
Engage in consistent communication.
Confirm that your manager is scheduling (and showing up for) regular, face-to-face meetings where you’re able to discuss boundaries, expectations, issues, priorities, and goals.
Quickly bring up any issues that come up on the job to your manager so you can solve the problem right away.
If your manager doesn’t resolve voiced issues in a respectful, professional manner, go directly to them and ask what you might be able to do to assist. If all else fails, it may be time to speak to HR.
If the organization still fails to resolve and prevent said issue through appropriate coaching, therapy, or termination, immediately begin a serious job search. This will either bolster your confidence as you take your fate into your own hands while the situation resolves itself or give you the means to leave the job in order to save yourself.
It can be terrifying to quit in order to escape a toxic boss, but it’s sometimes the only choice. This is easier said than done – in many cases, victims of toxic workplaces feel incredibly “stuck”, overcome with self-doubt and hopelessness. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings, as they are normal, and to then get the help you need to walk away. For me, therapy was crucial in fostering the self-confidence I needed to walk away from a toxic situation.
It’s not up to you to change a toxic boss or work relationship, and if your company won’t respect your needs and resolve the problem, then it is your responsibility to love yourself enough to know when to find a new job. More specifically, a job at a company that values and maintains a mentally healthy workplace. Trust me – your brain (and maybe even your body) will thank you.
Claire Sanguedolce is Brand & Operations Manager of SF-based mental health startup Kip. Claire, who has life-long experience as a mental health advocate, is dedicated to fighting the stigma through her shameless storytelling.