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.