5 Ways to Deal with a Toxic Boss

There’s no vaccine for bad bosses, but there are some tactics that can help improve a tough manager-employee situation.

Even under the difficult conditions of the pandemic, there were excellent, empathetic leaders who not only supported their direct reports but also helped them do the work that needed to be done.

Unfortunately, there are lots of bosses who weren’t great—quite the opposite. They were obstinate, insulting, micromanaging, or a combination of all three. Experts say it’s also unrealistic to think many of these toxic bosses will get any better once the pandemic conditions end.

If you just wanted to get away from these bad managers, you’d be in a lot of company. Nearly 60% of workers have left a job because of their manager. But before you decide that your boss is too much, there are ways to manage and even improve the situation. Consider these five techniques.

Get a fresh perspective.

While you might believe your boss is handling situations poorly—yelling at you in front of the client, changing direction on a project without telling you, or belittling you in front of colleagues—you might want to get a third party’s perspective on how events are playing out. “Ask a mentor or coach who is outside the situation for advice,” says David Meintrup, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Describe to them a typical stressful situation, recounting what your boss said and how you reacted. Ask what you could have done differently and whether the situation is as dire as you think it is.

You could also reality-test your perspective with your peers, says Korn Ferry senior client partner Deb Nunes. For instance, seek out the perspective of a trusted colleague who has been in meetings with you and your boss. Ask the colleague if they are seeing and feeling the same things you are. Once you’ve confirmed that others are noticing the same behavior, you can begin to mitigate the problem.

Consider that your reaction might play a role.

Changing your own reaction or behavior could make the situation less stressful. “Your reactions could be playing off of each other,” Nunes says. For instance, if your boss gets easily upset and you have a temper, a small disagreement could quickly turn into a massive, ugly dispute. Or if your boss is condescending, that might influence you to become defensive or blame others.

There might be steps you can take in advance to keep future situations from getting so intense. For instance, if you know your boss gets upset when he sees the quarterly sales numbers at the last minute, make sure your boss sees the numbers ahead of your meeting to avoid a conflict. “Many managers will demonstrate poor leadership behavior when they are surprised by something,” Nunes says.

Try to reconcile.

During a one-on-one meeting with your boss, admit that there are times when you don’t work together well. Let your boss know what behaviors you’re working on to make things better—for instance, not overreacting or blaming others.

“You can talk about what you’re doing to make the situation better, but it’s very hard to give feedback to someone who is not a direct report when they don’t ask for it,” Nunes says. Identify the triggers, then focus on what you’re going to do to rectify the situation and ask if that action would help, she says. You could say, “I think it feels a little uncomfortable for you when I don’t have quarterly numbers to you before the last week of the quarter. I’m working on getting them to you a week before the quarter closes. Would that help?”

Consider talking to HR.

If you’re unable to patch things up with your boss, it might be time to talk with the human resources department. Tell your HR manager what has been going on and what you have been doing to try to reconcile with your boss, and ask for advice on how to work together constructively. “You will need to show HR what you have tried to do to mitigate the situation, because HR will want to try to salvage the relationship,” Meintrup says.

Look for a new job.

You’ve asked others for advice. You were self-reflective and identified and developed a plan to diffuse situations. You even talked with HR. And nothing has changed. At that point, it is probably time to consider looking for a new position. “If you’ve done as much as you can, and the relationship is still stagnant, it is probably time to leave,” Meintrup says. Working with a toxic boss is not good for your health or your career. “If you truly have a toxic boss, staying and working with them will bring you down physically and emotionally,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Val Olson.