Taming the toxic boss

One of the most toxic bosses I have ever heard of is a chief executive who likes to finish her verbal tirades and brutal daily character assassinations with a suffocating hug. Seriously, a 'warm and fuzzy' hug.

"This will make up for all of my evilness, people feel great after hugs" she must say to herself.

Many years ago in Hobart I worked for a gym owner who would demean his staff all day and walk around catching them making mistakes. Funnily enough by eroding people's confidence like this – he certainly found them!

Toxic bosses come in all shapes and sociopathic sizes and their behaviour can vary from wildly distracting to physically and psychologically debilitating. My client who was dealing with the 'hugging boss' quickly realised her best bet was to resign. However, not everyone wants to or is in a position to walk away from a job. They might love the job, the business, their team or that secure paycheck too much to leave. The hugger is a new type of toxic boss to add to my expanding catalogue that includes:

The screamer – why talk when you can yell?
The demeaner – humiliating remarks and gestures are great tools to make my staff do what I want.
The schemer – it's fun to cut people out of meetings and withhold information to protect my power base. "I'm not insecure. Who said that anyway?"
The freezer – I have no feelings or empathy towards humans ...ever. "I've even had my expression glands permanently removed".
The micromanager – poor brilliant me, I am the only one who can get anything done properly.
The faker – the last time I was authentic was like, never.
The hugger – whatever appalling things I do, a hug will always fix it. "Come on, let's just hug it out".
The freeloader – work is what my staff do, I'm too gifted and too important for that.
The stealer – I'm not sharing the credit with anyone. It's all mine, all mine (insert evil laugh here)

I've spent a substantial amount of my time coaching people to deal with toxic chairmen, GMs, CEO's and other line managers – the Darth Vaders, David Brents and Miranda Priestlys of this world.

According to Harvard sociopath guru Marcia Stout, four per cent of our society is made up of consciousless sociopaths. That's one in 25 people, so you are bound to come across one at some point in your working career.

My approach is to work to minimise the havoc that these kinds of bosses are allowed to wreak on professional performance, well being and personal lives (and our poor families or partners who get the dump at the end of the day).

So to prevent the constant levels of negative stress and negative thoughts weighing you down, here are my golden rules (and I'd love to hear from you if you have any other tactics or horror stories) to try and tame the toxic boss.


1. Don't ignore them. Keep a record of conversations and encounters. Organisations have a duty of care to all employees to provide a workplace safe from bullying and harassment. You need to demonstrate how their approach is impacting your work and document exactly what happened.

2. Stay calm. Try not to let this sociopath bring you to tears or visible emotional trauma. Pick your mark and speak with the toxic boss to let them know that you are open to feedback but demeaning and insulting remarks really impact the way you work and don't do any favours for them either.

3. Preserve your self-esteem. Sorry to dial-a-quote on you but Eleanor Roosevelt was right. "No one can make you feel inferior without your permission." Don't let the toxic boss erode your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Never put up with a verbal tirade. Remember bullies tend to scream at people they perceive as being weak. One of the best strategies is to simply turn and walk away and leave them screaming to themselves (hard to do, but very debilitating and can quickly disarm).

4. Present your case. If work really does become unbearable, and you are ready to throw in the towel – a last ditch bid could be to present your case to a senior manager – especially where bad behaviours have been well documented. If you are in a less desperate place, a softer strategy might be to approach a senior manager about 'other opportunities' in the company that would help you 'spread your wings'. This has less risk attached and a potentially positive return if it takes you out of the path of your nemesis.

5. Don't compromise your true values. Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive, took the ultimate revenge on his employer, resigning and writing a letter to the New York Times. He told the world: "It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as 'muppets',sometimes over internal e-mail." Memo to self: if you work somewhere (besides The Jim Henson company) that calls customers "muppets", it's time to find a new employer.

While writing a letter to a newspaper might be viewed as extreme, don't compromise your true values by constantly turning the cheek and putting up with an obnoxious workplace bully.

Have you ever had a toxic boss and if so, how did you deal with them?