Toxic Boss Syndrome
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
Have you found yourself working in a role where you get an uneasy feeling from your boss? You can't quite work out their behaviours, but something is just not right? Unfortunately, it's very common for a Manager or business owner to be completely incompetent as a leader. Some bosses have no clue on how to be effective and inspirational leaders, exhibiting toxic behaviour which result in a high turn-over of staff and low morale amongst the team. Toxic bosses are hard to please, constantly change direction, openly criticise colleagues, back stab others, make unrealistic demands, refuse to accept responsibility for their own mistakes, and display aggressive verbal (or even physical) outbursts.
Career Origin is a career development company. We help people with their careers. We prepare and supply the tools necessary for career progression (job applications – resumes, covers letters and selection criteria). We also consult with our clients in career development sessions and interview coaching. As a result, discussion often arises about workplace environments, policies, procedures, colleagues and ‘bosses’. Our clients express their concerns and the difficulties of working with various personality types.
In all our years of working in the careers sector, we have noticed one undeniable trend, good bosses are hard to come by. There could be a variety of reasons and sometimes, the employee’s perception of a good boss versus a bad boss is based on their own unwillingness to take responsibility for their own shortcomings. But more often than not, the Manager has poor leadership skills and displays some concerning characteristics.
The following is an outline of the various characteristics and attributes which may be indicators of a toxic boss. If this describes your boss, there is often little you can do to change the behaviour. Following is an outline and explanation of these attributes and some suggestions on what you can do to resolve it. However, in some circumstances you're left with the choice of 'riding it out' or 'walking away'.
The Poor Communicator
A toxic boss rarely communicates appropriately or effectively. Do your allocated tasks and deadlines constantly change? But you only uncover the change in direction by accident. It is never communicated through the appropriate means – direct conversation, workplace meeting, memo or email. This often leads to your boss expressing disappointment that you didn’t meet expectations you were not even aware of. Confused? You would be if you were being reprimanded for not completing a task or meeting a deadline you didn’t know about! Constantly moving goals posts can be extremely difficult to keep on top of. Transparent communication in a leadership role is an absolute must!
If your Manager displays these habits, you need to take charge. That doesn’t mean standing over your boss, but you need to get some clear direction and guidelines on what is expected. Take notes and communicate set targets, deadlines and expected outcomes in writing. This can be done in a friendly and organised manner, rather than coming across as overbearing. Keep them in the loop about what you’re doing and the progress you are making.
The Passive- Aggressive
A toxic boss can often show passive aggressive attributes. What is passive aggressive? They come across as bitter and aggressive but in a manner which is much harder to pinpoint. It is often masked as humour and you're the bitter one if you didn't get the 'joke'. Some of the 'humour' is a little hostile, such as throwing insults at staff, then laughing it off as a “joke”. Indirect feedback and communication is another; leaving you confused about past conversations and directions. You start to wonder what the actual problem is, you may question prior instructions, when initially you felt you were quite clear about what the instructions were, originally. This can come about because instructions are not clear and the communication may be in the form of hints or partial information. You might even find yourself apologising for something you didn’t do. The passive aggressive boss is never at fault and always blames others. Their attitude towards you can change in an instant.
If your Manager displays these habits, you need to make a change. Move away or move on because these behaviours are never going to change. Keep copious notes and records on what tasks you are undertaking and the progress you are making, so you can confidently back yourself. Be aware, as the passive aggressive boss can hold grudges and the outbursts and behaviour may worsen once they learn you have been keeping notes.
In other words control freak. They find it hard to let go, wanting to control and be involved in every aspect of your daily work. This is a characteristic often displayed by someone with insecurities. It can also be displayed by someone new to a Management role. It is also a common attribute in small to medium business owners who have become accustomed to doing everything on their own. They do not trust other staff to take care of certain aspects of the business. The trouble is, the key to growth is through delegation and building a trusted and competent team.
Keep notes from meetings and work progress. Send updates to your Manager to keep them in the loop. Be responsive and positive when they ask a question. It might seem like overkill but keeping your Manager in the loop will eventually earn their trust and hopefully they will learn to loosen the reigns.
Let’s face it. There are many incompetent bosses around. Put your hand up if you’ve come across one?! Sometimes a boss lands the job without the relevant industry knowledge or awareness of company culture. They may lack knowledge of the latest trends or basic information on products and services or they may be lacking in policy and procedural knowledge.
Quite simply, you cannot change the appointment of an incompetent boss. And you cannot transform a boss from incompetent to competent. The danger of working for an incompetent boss is that their behaviours may reflect on you. Keep records of your work and your progress. Keep building relationships and maintain your professional image at all times. Don’t get sucked into bitching about your boss with others when their incompetence starts to become common knowledge.
The Unrealistic Setter of Expectations
Great bosses will challenge you and set targets which help develop your professional knowledge. Toxic bosses can and will sabotage your performance with unrealistic goals and expectations. Irrespective of which category your boss falls into this can be a great learning curve. Let’s forget about the boss for a moment and focus on you. How you manage this situation says a lot about you professionally. You are probably not going to change the boss’ behaviour, but if they exhibit some of the other habits listed here they will be certain to outline your shortcomings if you don’t succeed.
If you have been allocated a task with an unrealistic expectation or deadline, accept the challenge. But be quite clear and upfront about explaining what you’ll need to complete this task. You may do this in a follow up meeting, so you can explain how you have evaluated the situation. Providing options and explaining the network of support you may need to complete this task, will help your boss understand what’s involved and they will also see that you are flexible and a problem solver.
Ever had a boss who takes all the credit and doesn’t acknowledge your contribution or achievements? They take none of the blame when things go wrong, always blaming others, even though they are the leader. And they take all the credit when things go right. They rarely express appreciation for your work and may openly back stab your colleagues and former staff for their shortcomings. They are also never willing to accept a different opinion, because they know better, they have more experience and they are the ‘boss’.
This a warning sign that you will never be rewarded or acknowledged for your hard work or contributions. Be wary of handing over ideas or suggestions without first making notes or keeping records. This is a deeply ingrained attribute which can rarely be changed. Not receiving any credit for your work can be disheartening and soul destroying. If this job is not a vital step towards achieving your overall career goals and you can find a new and meaningful role which ticks all the boxes, it could be time to move on.
The Back Stabber
That leads our article to the ‘backstabber boss’… the boss who doesn’t hold back and quite happily shares his dislike, distrust or outright disregard for your colleagues. The boss often bandies around information given to him in confidence, repeats gossip, quotes lines from others and back stabs your colleagues and former staff. Perhaps the outbursts about others only occurs when there is an error or something doesn’t go to plan. As mentioned above the arrogant boss will never accept blame when things go wrong, so why not openly and publicly name and shame others? It’s a great way to build rapport, trust and respect in your team right? (insert sarcasm here)
See our suggestion above for dealing with the arrogant boss. Be aware that if your boss is behaving like this about others, he is most certainly behaving this way about you – behind your back. There is no loyalty here. It could be time to move on.