Toxic Bosses

If you’ve ever worked for a “toxic boss” the following should sound familiar: Your boss repeatedly criticizes you, blames you, compares you (unfavorably) to others, discounts your contributions and worth, and is hostile or passive-aggressive. You can’t always put your finger on why, but you end up tied up in a knot, frustrated, angry or demoralized with each interaction. As a result you – and most likely your colleagues – experience an underlying feeling of anxiety, distrust, negativity, helplessness, lack of energy…even despair. 

So how do you deal with a toxic boss? Ideally, you get a new job. But if this is not a viable solution, there are ways to reduce the serious physical and emotional damage that can result from working under persistently stressful conditions. Here are some tips to help make working for a toxic boss more manageable:

Minimize your dealings with your boss.

·      Be as specific and efficient as possible in your communications to limit your time dealing with your boss.

·      Identify others you can go to for information, support or guidance.

·      If at all possible, request to be placed on a different team or with a different supervisor.

Respond, don’t react.

·      If your boss is yelling at you, bullying you or calling you names, say, “I’m happy to finish this conversation when you are calmer, but I’m going back to my office for now.” Or, “I’m going to end this conversation if you call me names.”

Set boundaries and don’t explain

·      Learn to say no to unreasonable demands. Simply, without justification. Remember the old slogan, “’No’ is a complete sentence.”

·      You cannot reason with an unreasonable person, so better to just state your limits and have a mantra ready to combat any lashing out. “I can’t do that right now,” or, “I can work on it as soon as I am done with the ___ project.” Hold your ground despite your boss’s emotional reaction.


·      For your emotional well being, and in case you ever need specific information for potential intervention by higher-ups, take notes. First, write down what happened, date and time, the situation, and what was said or done.

Next – and more importantly for your mental health – write down how you felt before, during and after the incident. It will help you clarify how this person’s behavior affects you, make sense of what goes on for you emotionally, and inform you where your reactions might be contributing to your distress.


·      If you are unable to make a change and are stuck with your boss, learn to detach emotionally. It sounds – and is at first – difficult, but it can be done. Recognize what this person is about. Even if you don’t understand why, become aware of what seems to trigger them, what their typical reactions are, what they try to do to catch you off-guard and unbalance you. Then when it happens, put up your invisible shield. Remind yourself this is not about you. Listen for any important content and literally forget about the rest. How important is it?

·      Distressing as the behavior is, this is the way your boss operates and you have no chance of changing their M.O. You do have a chance of defusing their behavior by not reacting in kind and not taking it personally.

Just listen – as long as they are not yelling or being otherwise abusive – respond calmly and succinctly, and leave. Or read over their email, draft a response and make sure it’s brief and just the facts. No emotional content. With practice you can learn to detach emotionally and be less confused or hurt by their behavior. Plus, you can maintain your integrity by staying self-contained and doing nothing you regret.


·      Even if you detach, you may still experience some stress from the overall tenor of your work environment. So call or text a friend if you can, even if you just say, “There she goes again” or “I’m committing to not being frazzled by him.” After work do something healthy to unwind, to relax, to work off your pent up energy, and talk with someone if you can.

The bottom line is that you, unfortunately, have zero control over your boss’s behavior. But you do have control over your own actions. So “keep the focus on yourself.” Monitor your responses, your thoughts and your feelings, and practice “radical self-care” and you’ll see your situation become more manageable, even if your boss doesn’t change a bit.

Author: Kayla Schwartz, LMSW, Clinical Associate