Dealing with a Toxic Boss

How emotional intelligence skills can make it easier to cope and improve the office environment, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.

Heather was a senior paralegal at an immigration law firm. She loved helping her clients and mentoring new paralegals, but Heather feared the attorney she worked for–Jonathan–was becoming increasingly toxic. Following the loss of a major client, Jonathan abruptly fired a junior paralegal, whose role had had little impact on the outcome. When Heather came to the defense of her teammate, Jonathan didn’t want to hear it. He saw her suggestions as a threat to his authority.

But Heather hesitated to quit her job, at least not immediately. While the financial security and benefits included in her position were a factor, she also felt responsible for the other paralegals on her team. She had trained nearly all of them and worried about their well-being, particularly if she were to leave.

Having to deal with a toxic boss–and by extension, a toxic workplace–is, unfortunately, far too common. And while you may long to quit, that’s not always an option, particularly in the short-term. Strengths in emotional intelligence can make it easier to cope with a boss who lacks EI.

While Heather began reaching out to her network for new opportunities, she also applied strengths in emotional intelligence to navigate the toxicity her boss brewed. To sustain her mental health during this difficult period, Heather focused on what she could control. When work became particularly stressful, she would take a few minutes to focus on her breath with mindfulness, to maintain her emotional balance. She worked at keeping a positive outlook, reminding herself that this was temporary while she looked for new opportunities elsewhere.

While those strategies show Heather’s strengths in self-management–the first line of defense against a toxic workplace–she also turned to the relationship management part of EI. Heather did what she could to improve daily realities for her team: She set up weekly teambuilding exercises that included new norms to foster mutual respect and helpfulness among the paralegals (this is part of the EI teamwork competence). She also acted as a coach and mentor, routinely meeting one-on-one with junior team members to develop their short-term and long-term goals.

Research in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that “prosocial motivation”–or pursuing the well-being of others–helps employees bring about positive change despite a discouraging supervisor. Employees who feel a sense of responsibility are more likely to take action, regardless of whether they see supervisors as toxic or discouraging.

Of course, some leaders encourage proactive employees: They solicit input, foster a foundation of trust, and don’t micro-manage. Yet too often toxic bosses act in opposition to these values, which results in a psychologically unsafe environment. Worse, some bosses actually punish–or threaten to punish–employees who take such initiative. That, needless to say, lowers the motivation to try. But the research shows that if your focus is on benefitting others, not your own self-interest, you’ll be better able to work toward needed changes.

Bottom line: The self-management EI competencies can help you endure a toxic workplace and seek new opportunities with a positive mindset. In addition, developing strengths in the social awareness and relationship management competencies lets us drive positive change despite a toxic atmosphere, creating benefits that extend far beyond ourselves.

Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.