Overcoming A Toxic Boss

Let me start with the bottom line.  Toxic bosses never bring out the best in people. They are bosses who exhibit the kind of behavior that proves detrimental to an employee personally, to their performance, and to the culture of an organization. In essence, they are nothing more than workplace bullies who use their perceived power to control others.

As much as we’d like to think that the workplace has opened its eyes to the importance of having employee engagement and a positive corporate culture, the truth remains—toxic bosses are still out there. In fact, I started to write a book titled, "I had a good boss, once" based on how frequently I would hear from supervisors and managers of their limited exposure to the one boss who understood positive reinforcement. The most succinct way to describe a toxic boss is that they are all about "me" in word and in deed. Their verbal behavior is populated with personal pronouns—I, me, and mine.  In their actions, they take credit for the work of others while at the same time belittling others’ accomplishments. Even though they often satisfy their own bosses by hitting their targets, they almost always leave performance on the table because they don’t get discretionary effort from their direct reports.

If you Google "toxic bosses" you will discover a long list of unflattering adjectives characteristic of what might be called a mean or disagreeable person. The sad fact is that these people don't see themselves as such primarily because they please their bosses and rarely show their "mean side" in the presence of their own boss. Because they intimidate direct reports and peers, it is not infrequent that peers and subordinates unwittingly support the negative behaviors to avoid an unpleasant interaction or to escape the situation altogether.

Back to the bottom line. Organizations should be vigilant about finding toxic managers. Once identified, every effort should be made to help them change their behavior. Take heed—it will likely be difficult because of their long history of receiving positive reinforcement for the toxic behaviors. Those who understand human behavior know that the current contingencies of reinforcement maintain those behaviors and when the contingencies change the behavior will change. Unfortunately, if they are inadvertently reinforced for their toxic behavior, it will be almost impossible for them to change and it may be time to send them on their way.

Follow these recommendations and your organization will have a fighting chance at overcoming toxic bosses and workplace bullies:

  • Take action quickly. When a toxic boss is identified, the organization should move quickly to help change the offensive and counterproductive behavior. If, after a reasonable amount of time, the intervention is unsuccessful and they don’t change, it may be time to take disciplinary action—either a demotion or termination.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I enabling this?” If the person is a peer or your boss, you should examine your interactions to see if your own behavior is unknowingly reinforcing theirs. Any reaction at all that lets the offender know that s/he has shocked, annoyed or otherwise "gotten your goat" is a positive reinforcer.  Ignore the offensive comments. This may increase the toxic manager’s bad or inappropriate behavior but you should continue to hold your ground.
  • Help your boss be successful. As unlikely as it may be, help the boss be successful. By doing so, you become a reinforcer to him/her and your negative reactions to the toxic behavior act as punishers or suppress the undesirable behavior. Your boss will likely come to value your opinion, paving the way for you to have a positive influence in the future.  Remember, the behavior, as distasteful as it may be, is learned and as such can be unlearned and replaced by more positive and productive behavior.  While it is not your job to train the boss, it will make your interactions less stressful and more productive for you and your team.
  • Hire and promote positive talent. Look for strong social skills and effective management qualities when hiring or promoting at the supervisory or management level. This is not to suggest that it is more important than technical job skills but social skills should be the first screen used to weed out candidates, particularly for management and supervisory positions. Management is no place for anyone who uses threat, intimidation, or authority as the way to achieve organizational outcomes.  These behaviors have unseen costs that few companies can afford in today's competitive environment.

By taking these steps, organizations will be closer to the day when more people will say, "I had a bad boss, once." The 3rd edition of Bringing Out the Best in People is now available. Learn more about the science and how to use it to motivate employees and maximize performance.


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.