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Understanding a Toxic Boss

In my eight years of professional experience within the development/education sector, in PR and Marketing, and also of being an Entrepreneur for some of it, I have come across countless companies, bosses, management, and also clients and customers. Having been there, and done that, I can confidently say that none of my experiences have been alike and they each added to my learning of understanding effective and also not as capable leadership.

I would also consider it agreeable to assume that my broader professional experiences, and learning thereof, would be similar to anyone who is and has been, associated with a professional life long enough to come across different types of leaders. According to Harvard Business Review, organizational culture stems from top-level leaders. It is indeed the culture of a company that makes or breaks its success and impacts employee motivation, productivity, and turnover ratios. In simpler words, bosses make the real difference and are the driving engine of any successful organization.

In some organizations the work is challenging and the hours are long, sometimes the team does work collaboratively, often employers slack in creating conducive strategies, and some companies don’t have adequate check-and-balances, and the work-life and personal-life equilibrium is misbalanced.

Having said that, “my boss gives me a difficult time” is different from “my boss is never happy with my work”. Whilst effective leadership has a moment of appreciation, constructive criticism, and also difficult moments when the employee and the boss don’t see eye-to-eye, even in its worst moments it does not make an employee doubt their potential or second guess their work ethic. Lack of clarity and support, discouragement, criticism and an above-all attitude are some traits of toxic leadership and not poor leadership.

It is also not as straightforward, and the lines are often blurred making it even harder for employees to comprehend whether your boss falls under the ‘toxic’ category or is unskilled for a leadership role, let’s take this quick quiz:

  1. I have experienced my boss using more “you” statements than “I statements”.

  2. It is difficult to make my boss happy.

  3. I have to be cautious and reserved when my boss is present and around.

  4. It is uncommon for my boss to no lash out.

  5. I am often assigned tight deadlines and my office culture is “work above all”.

  6. I lack direction and cooperation at work.

  7. Professional interferences at work confuse me as to what my role is at work.

  8. The jokes at my workplace get quite personal.

  9. My efforts are seldom acknowledged.

  10. I see a lack of space in my organization for ideas to be discussed.

If the answer to most of the questions is in affirmative, you, unfortunately, happen to have a toxic boss. And you are not alone! The harsh truth is, most employees have experienced one or more toxic bosses in their professional journey. The experience is also common enough for us to land at the infamous saying “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses”.

So what makes a boss toxic? Let’s look into it.

“Everything is Urgent”:

Urgent tasks can come up; sometimes clients ask for documents, reports, and updates out of the blue and employers have to give in to certain demands. However, it is not the same if that is a permanent state. If, as an employee, you are constantly overwhelmed with work and new deadlines are communicated even before the current ones have been met, you are working under an unempathetic leadership which is not respectful of its employees' time.

Whilst ‘every task is urgent, and the clients ‘must be always made happy’, employees are expected to compromise and crunch in those hours to produce results. Often in these situations, if the employee speaks up and tries to communicate their existing work pressure, they are met with discouragement and with the ‘you are not understanding the urgency of the task’ response. Whilst doing this, the employers are often setting unrealistic expectations with the employee and also unintentionally setting them up for a failure or a low-quality result.

Likewise, incompetent leadership lacks effective communication and does not acknowledge the role of employees in the organization and its success. The communication is one-sided, unclear, and often unproductive.

"A bad boss won't just jeopardize your career growth — they'll also negatively impact your personal life,"
Says Lynn Taylor, workplace expert, leadership coach, and author.

Shame-Based Approach:

Around mid-afternoon, on a weekday, I received a call from my immediate supervisor. “ABC is saying that you are using social media and working on your business during office hours”, was their starting statement. My supervisor was a reasonable person and I could also sense that she too was uncomfortable in communicating whatever she had been asked to communicate.

If you are thinking that the only way for ABC to know whether I was on social media during office hours and whether I was tending to my business and not office work as if they were also active on social media at the time, you are right. That’s the only way they’d know. If not that, then they must have had enough time to spare in going around and stalking their employees and verify their social media time stamps. Either way, sounds bizarre, right?

I chose to not engage and if I did, it was only to ask if there’s a policy that says this? Of course, there was not. Such and similar experiences are not uncommon for employees to go through when employed under leadership that creates and eliminates policies that serve their temporary objective.

According to Psychology Today, “shame can lead us to feel as though our whole self is flawed, bad, or subject to exclusion, it motivates us to hide or to do something to save face.” Hence, such tactics can easily manipulate and trigger the “I have made a mistake, how do I fix this” mode, and baneful bosses commonly practice it. Unfortunately, reason does not work with them, only facts do.

Criticism But Not Constructive:

Bad bosses might call your work mediocre, toxic bosses underestimate your professional potential to produce quality results. The line may seem clear and minor, but it is not. Being expected to produce average results entails an expectation to produce results; questioning one’s ability to produce results comes with an absence of expectation and with the belief of the employee ‘not being intelligent/capable’ enough. Not only can it shatters an employee’s confidence in the workplace, but also fill their knowledge and skills with self-doubt.


Imagine hearing “Asad cannot perform this task” instead of being explained how are Asad’s skills suited or not suited for this task;


Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, it is far from that. It can be overwhelming and hard to distinguish the difference between the two. Having been in an environment where I was not able to distinguish between the two, I can confidently say that often office politics, personal opinions, and subjective experiences can paint a bad boss toxic and a toxic boss as selective. Neither is healthy for an employee’s, and also for the organizational, growth but the latter can do more damage than the other.

Authoritative but Not Accountable:

If you have come across a boss that perceives position as ‘power’, let us confirm that it is indeed toxic!

A manager's respect from the team is earned not given. It doesn't happen overnight but in the right environment,” says Brigette Hyacinth – Author of Leading the Workforce of the Future.

An evident feature of problematic bosses is their infamous authority to do as they please and have selective consideration towards their employees and employee well-being at the workplace. They tend to take respect for granted, exhibit insensitivity and take unilateral decisions. Deviating from accountability, shifting blame, and disregarding organizational policies are some more characteristics that can be observed in action under the umbrella of being in the authoritative position.

Daniel Foley – Chief Marketing Officer at Scooter Guide – in highlighting some of the most prominent characteristics of a toxic boss says that “they don’t practice what they preach” and we feel confident in affirming the same. . He explained, employees are “inspired by leaders who live and breathe the example they want to be followed.”

If you have experienced or heard about, bosses implying that their word is all that matters, then you are not alone. I, and my colleagues and friends, have had multiple similar discussions and can corroborate the same.

In the story I shared above, what must be noted is that there was no pertaining policy, and also it was a work-from-home set-up and work meetings would often be scheduled for outside of the official timings. There was also no culture of paying overtime to employees but they were expected to work overtime and to give more than they received from the job. All in all, that event was absurd and made no sense from any perspective.

What did make the matter even more shocking was when I received an email from HR communicating in writing what had been said to me over the phone, despite there being no supporting policy or prior notice of a new policy. This particular aspect of my experiences goes to show the misuse of authority which lies with leadership. Sadly, this is not uncommon and many people around me have experienced similar and other events where policies and practices have been made out of thin air and employees are reprimanded for behaviors they don’t even know are ‘against the policy.

Toxic Leadership is NOT a Bad Boss:

Whilst we are on the topic of toxic bosses, it is crucial to understand a toxic boss and being able to differentiate it from a bad boss. A bad boss can still be a humble and kind person but not able to lead and guide productively. A bad boss is someone who may expect more work than is assigned in the JD, not take as many questions for employee’s better understanding, and might not knock an employee’s office door when wanting to come in, or who annoys with lame jokes now and then.

Here, we’re not referring to a ‘bad boss’ but a manipulative boss, can make employees doubt their worth and their professional potential, and the one who is more focused on numbers than people. If the saying, “employees don’t leave companies, they leave the managers” hits too close to home - I know I relate to it – then you know how difficult it is to understand whether your boss is toxic or plain bad.

According to the research The Price of Incivility undertaken at Harvard Business School:

  • 48% of employees have reported intentionally decrease the effort they put in their work when subjected to incivility at work.

  • 38% of employees have responded in affirmative when asked if the quality of their work has been affected due to the toxic organizational culture.

  • 80% of the employees who are unjustly treated at work have admitted to losing time to thinking about the uncivil incident than actually being able to work.

  • 63% of employees have also admitted that more time is spent in avoiding the offender than in actually working.

  • 47% employees of those employees who are regularly mistreated at work admitted to overall spending less time at work.

  • 78% of employees claimed that their commitment to the organization has decreased.

  • 12% of employees also agreed to have left their jobs due to uncivil treatments

In a nutshell, the toxicity of a boss does not begin and end with them. It seeps into the organizational culture and also becomes a representation of the organizational values. There is also no replacement, alternate, or making-up for it. No lunch treats, birthday gifts, taco Tuesdays, or annual field day can mend the impact of toxic leadership.

Identifying a toxic boss does not imply that the person in the respective position is inherently “bad” or even “always toxic” but humans can behave differently in different roles. Sometimes, combining a challenging personality with an authoritative position can create a complicated combination for employees in the organization. This does not intend or imply that all toxic bosses are bad humans; unhealthy characteristics do not define a person and the aim must not be to label anyone. Unfortunately, these traits can still get in the way and influence professional relationships and when in an authoritative position, can create a challenging environment for employees. Whilst we can assume through research, and also understand, that people with toxic traits mostly have had difficult life experiences and view the world through an objective perspective, it is equally significant to acknowledge the consequences of their behavior and decisions to not let their toxicity come in the way of your personal and professional well-being.

Compassion and empathy must be practiced and propagated and, at the same time, it is crucial to realize which leader and organization are good for your personal and professional development, and which place and employer will leave you worrying and in self-doubt. And if you find yourself in this position, ‘fixing’ the person or expecting them to change is not your responsibility. You can, however, document events and incidents when your boss has been unreasonable or has communicated something and done otherwise. You can also try and make ‘facts’ your friends, and keep yourself secure from being the target.

Similarly, you can take matters to HR with evidence and file a complaint. I know I have and it has worked for me, and I also know of employees for whom it has not. You are the best judge of your situation, hence resort to solutions that can work in your favor and if they don’t, you have the right and personal responsibility to remove yourself from an environment that can damage your well-being.

We spend approx. 37% of our time at work, each day. It’s not worth spending it in an environment and under leadership that is not conducive.


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