It’s a fact: Toxic people can be found anywhere in the office, from the mailroom to the corner office. But what happens if said toxic person is, gulp, your boss? You know, the person who signs off on everything from your expense report to your vacation requests. It happens, and according to Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, there are actually three different types of toxic bosses to watch out for.
It’s worth noting that just because your boss is difficult doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also toxic. The difference between the annoying and difficult boss and the toxic boss is a matter of frequency and potency, says Abbajay. “It is important to identify how often your boss exhibits the toxic behavior and how forceful that behavior is. For example, a boss who occasionally throws a temper tantrum, says mean things and threatens to fire you is terrible, but a boss who frequently and regularly rages at you, demeans you, humiliates and punishes you is toxic.” (If you’re unsure about where your manager’s behavior falls on the spectrum—or that it may be a punishable/fireable offense—bring it up with HR or talk to someone you trust in your office about your concerns.)
Here, Abbajay defines each toxic type—and shares her expertise for how to deal.
How to Spot One: This is the boss who is always hovering right over your shoulder. They tell you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. They want to oversee and control every little detail and they make it nearly impossible for you to think independently from them.
How to Deal: The problem with a micromanager boss is that it pits two very basic human neuropsychological needs against each other: our need for autonomy and their need for control. Navigating this tension is all about building trust. You won’t get autonomy until they get their certainty. In order to gain trust from a micromanager, you have to provide them with the things they crave the most: information, inclusion and, yes, control. Resisting that—or being sloppy about the details—will only aggravate the situation.
Some Tactics to Try: First, try to anticipate their needs. The more you learn about their expectations, the more you can proactively address them, removing the need for them to micromanage. Second, communicate clearly and keep them overly-informed. This means providing regular updates, plus status and progress reports before your boss asks for them. Keep in mind, this could be as simple as a daily email that lists all your projects and their status or CCing them when relevant. Finally, do your best to adopt their standards. You want to align your work to their preferences and learn what markers of quality your boss wants/needs, then deliver on them. (This also may require assessing yourself and looking for any trouble spots that are preventing your boss from trusting you.)
How to Spot One: The Narcissist is a boss who more often than not presents himself as charming, accomplished, charismatic and confident—someone you’d love to follow. It’s only after you’re drawn into their orbit that you realize they’re a self-absorbed, power hungry, egotistical and attention-grabbing manager from hell. Narcissist bosses have an exaggerated sense of importance and entitlement. They care more about their personal success than they do about the organization and the people. They also have an unrelenting need for admiration, praise and ego-stroking and are incapable of self-reflection or acknowledging their own failures.
How to Deal: First and foremost, look at the upside. Narcissists often rise to the top of organizational life. They are usually successful and influential, meaning they’ve built huge empires and trail-blazed new industries. If you can navigate the difficulties of working with a narcissist boss, there may be a positive payoff in terms of career success, experience and professional connections.
Some Tactics to Try: Because narcissists tend to be paranoid, loyalty counts for a lot. These individuals also thrive on flattery. You don’t have to make it over the top but complimenting a narcissist will keep you in their good graces. (You’ll feel less icky about it if you can focus on things you truly believe he or she does well.) Another strategy worth testing out: Appeal to their carefully crafted image. Psychologists explain that true narcissists (in the clinical sense) don’t feel guilt, but they might feel shame. This leaves an opening for you when it comes to persuasion tactics or even when it comes to advising or challenging a narcissist boss. Ask them: “What will people think?” Then, provide neutral pros and cons for their decisions framed in terms of how it will affect their image and reputation. Finally, never make it about your needs. For example, if you need some time to think over a big decision, say: “I really want this project to be a home run for you, so I’d love to take a few days to reflect on our approach.”
How to Spot One: They scream. They shout. They demean. They mock. They also pit people against each other and they have an uncanny ability to make your life feel like a living nightmare. They aren’t just toxic bosses, they are truly toxic people.
How to Deal: The truth is that there is not much you can do to tame this behavior. The best you can hope to do is try to survive. If your bully boss is a highly technical or financial performer, chances are that the organization is going to look the other way. Our best advice is to save yourself because no one else is going to. (Of course, if the bullying veers toward sexual assault or discrimination or worse, you should report it to HR.)
Some Tactics to Try (While You Look for a New Job): In order to survive, you have to create an emotional distance between yourself and the abusive boss. Picture an invisible force field around you that blocks your boss’s poison. Cheesy, we know, but hear us out. Your goal is to tune out and find humor in the drama, then let it go. After all, the bullying has nothing to do with you. In fact, you should feel sorry for your boss since their behavior is ridiculous. It’s also smart to activate your support network. Stay connected to your coworkers, but also build up your external list of contacts. (Anything to give you an outlet!) You should also do your best to stay out of the line of fire. Identify safe spots—say, a project outside your boss’s domain—or work from home as much as you can. From there, you’ll want to prioritize your exit. Get your résumé updated, then cue the job search.