employee sitting at a desk in front of a computer monitor in an open office, looking upset, with their boss standing behind them, one hand on their hip and a displeased expression on their face
Bailey Zelena; Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

After my first truly horrible interaction with my boss’ boss, I sat, stunned, in front of my laptop. In what I had thought was going to be an uneventful one-on-one meeting, she opened with, “You don’t seem happy here, and we don’t want people here who are unhappy. I would be more than happy to find you another job somewhere else.”

I needed this job, and I wasn’t unhappy—though I also wasn’t shy about suggesting ways to improve workflows and highlighting recurring points of friction. My feelings were hurt, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her intentions were good, I thought. She just worded her concern poorly.

A couple of months later, we had another Zoom call. It went about as well as the first. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never been questioned,” she said. “I suggest you watch your tone.”

That’s when I realized: This was turning into a pattern. I was dealing with a toxic boss.

What is a toxic boss, and why does it suck so much to have one?

A toxic boss is a manager who demoralizes and damages the people underneath them. Their repeated, disruptive behavior drives employees to become disengaged, diminishes their sense of belonging, and takes away their autonomy and sense of purpose—all of which are vital for thriving at work.

“Toxic bosses pull all the levers that lead to burnout,” says Peter Ronayne, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and coauthor of The Toxic Boss Survival Guide.

Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace report found that only 33% of employees in the U.S. and Canada feel engaged in their work, a feeling that good bosses foster. Many employees reported experiencing negative emotions during the workday, including worry (41%), stress (50%), sadness (22%), and anger (18%)—a recipe for burnout.

The report identified five sources that lead to burnout: unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure. And “those five causes have one thing in common: your boss,” the report summarizes. “Get a bad one and you are almost guaranteed to hate your job.”

Here’s what you need to know about working with toxic bosses—and how to preserve your peace of mind.

6 signs of a toxic boss

There are good bosses and there are not-so-good bosses. But while some managers can be disorganized, distant, or even a little annoying, that doesn’t mean they’re toxic. So what makes a truly harmful boss?

1. They don’t listen.

When dealing with a toxic boss, your feedback, suggestions, and concerns go unacknowledged. And a manager’s constant dismissal harms not only their team, but the entire company, says Tiziana Casciaro, Professor of Organizational Behavior and HR Management at the University of Toronto.

“No organization can thrive without people learning from each other. Otherwise, we all do the same things we’ve always done,” Casciaro says. “There is no growth when you have a boss who makes it almost impossible to communicate upward and to convey mistakes.” And when you can’t communicate upward, you lose out on valuable opportunities to learn and contribute ideas and might feel like your work or ideas don’t matter.

2. They micromanage.

At my job, we had to fill out a spreadsheet every day detailing what we spent our time working on. If we had a day that was a little less productive than others, we’d get a ping on Slack: “Why did you only edit two articles this day?”

Ronayne says micromanagement can be an annoying quality of any boss, but it’s also a common hallmark of toxicity. Micromanaging becomes toxic when the boss needs to have a say in everything going on—even when you’ve proven your ability and accountability—and when they’re quick to take credit for work done by others. “It really is a question of control and a lack of trust,” he says.

3. They don’t foster growth.

When working under a toxic boss, you might find your job to be one-note and monotonous. As time stretches on, you don’t get any new responsibilities or tasks, your work isn’t recognized, and you might feel stifled and stuck. As my former toxic manager told me when I asked for more duties: “The role is the role and it’s not going to change.”

“A toxic boss demotivates,” Casciaro says. “They allow very little leeway in how a subordinate conducts the work that is assigned to them, listen very little”—remember the first two signs above?—“and do not make the most of the capabilities of a subordinate.”

4. They act differently around their own managers.

While calling someone “two-faced” might feel a bit high-school, Ronayne says it’s an accurate descriptor and common behavior of toxic bosses. They tend to act differently based on who’s observing them.

This can be especially problematic because colleagues at your boss’ level or above might not see how they’re treating their subordinates or get an unbiased view of what’s happening day-to-day. And for the subordinates, having a boss who’s chummy with higher-ups can feel isolating and make it more intimidating to raise concerns about their toxic behavior.

5. They make you feel insecure.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2022 Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being report, “Creating the conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring workplace mental health and well-being.” Toxic bosses diminish your sense of belonging and connection to the organization, Ronayne says. And simply put: Not feeling safe to speak up and constantly worrying about job security is incredibly mentally taxing.

“The uncertainty and the rumination that a toxic boss brings is hugely draining to any individual on the receiving end,” he says. By undermining their employees’ sense of security, “They burn out people on their teams and in organizations very, very quickly.”

6. They have unreasonable expectations.

Once, when my team was feeling burnt out from the high-volume output we were expected to hit every day, we raised our concerns in a team meeting. Our manager’s response? “A lot of other companies have an even higher output than us.”

Toxic bosses are often inflexible about their expectations and demand an extreme workload, fast turn-arounds, and weekend Slack responses. These demands increase employee anxiety and fear, according to the surgeon general’s report, and can undermine work-life harmony, which the report names as a key component for employee well-being.

7 tips for dealing with a toxic boss

Once you’ve realized your boss is toxic, what can you do about it? There are a few approaches you can take:

1. Give them feedback.

Some managers might not be aware of just how toxic their actions are, Casciaro says. So your first approach should be trying to talk it out with them. This can also be helpful in determining if your boss is truly toxic—disruptive, rude, and self-centered—or if their management style is simply misaligning with what you’re used to.

A lot of the time toxic behavior is rooted in narcissism, Ronayne says, and the feedback you give your manager might go unacknowledged. “If they’re really toxic, they don’t care,” he says. “And that’s a key component of the toxicity.” So if their reaction to polite and professional feedback is cruel or uncaring, you’ll at least have a better sense of what you’re dealing with.

2. Try understanding (not excusing) their behavior.

Toxic behavior often comes from a place of insecurity, Casciaro says. She recommends taking a step back and trying to see why they need to exercise so much control over others. The approach? “Try to understand the rules of that behavior so that you can maybe offer something that gives a little bit of a boost to the boss and they become a little less needy of squashing everybody else around,” she says.

3. Make other connections.

It’s easy to feel stuck in a bad manager-subordinate relationship, but you don’t have to surrender to the situation. Instead, make other professional connections with potential mentors, both within and outside of your organization. Fostering these alternative relationships can open up new career opportunities and confidants to help you get out of your predicament.

“Look around the organization, expand your point of view, expand your network, find yourself a pathway to another group with another boss,” Casciaro says. “Many organizations are big enough to give you alternatives that allow you to pursue another option so you don’t have to be stuck in a position that is just too hard for you, individually, to fix.”

4. Cultivate self-care.

Ronayne equates day-to-day dealings with a toxic manager with being lost in the woods: “What’s really interesting—and when you look at all these cases of who survives being lost in the wilderness, or after plane crashes, or hikes gone awry—it’s not the strongest person. It’s not the most well-trained person. It’s the mental attitude that’s involved.”

It’s not about accepting the toxicity or papering over the harm it’s causing. “You’re dealing with a toxic situation. But where you can find humor in your day, where you can see beauty in your day, when you can express gratitude for small things that are happening even against the backdrop of a toxic boss?” he says. Maybe you can find a moment of camaraderie with coworkers or celebrate a little win. “That attitude and those tactics are key to survival—in the wilderness or in a toxic workplace.”

5. Ask for help.

When you’re working for a toxic person, you only have so much power. Before it gets to be too much to handle, turn to someone else for advice on how to navigate the situation or how to get out. Exactly who can be tricky to navigate, Ronayne says—it can be a trusted mentor, someone in human resources, or your skip-level manager (a.k.a., your boss’ boss). Sometimes—like if your toxic boss is part of a larger toxic management team or reflects a deeper toxic culture—it really should be someone outside of your workplace.

Document specific instances of your boss’ abusive behavior, and be strategic in whom you raise your concerns to, especially if there’s risk of your toxic boss retaliating if they find out you’re discussing them. In general, Ronayne recommends taking your worries, and your documentation, to HR.

6. Join forces with others.

Chances are, your boss isn’t exhibiting their problematic behavior just to you. Speak with trusted colleagues (not on the company Slack—an honest, face-to-face conversation is best) about their experiences with the boss, and then raise your concerns to someone you trust as a group. When multiple people come together, “It becomes clear that this is a situation,” Casciaro says. “It’s not just one disgruntled employee.”

7. Get TF out.

If you’ve exhausted all other options and you can afford to get out, then get out. Of course, quitting immediately without another job lined up isn’t a feasible option for everyone (it took me more than six months after that series of Zoom interactions to find a new role and put in my notice). But between work hours, get to work on your exit strategy. Start searching for a new job and expanding your network.

And remember that you don’t necessarily have to leave the company to escape a toxic boss; Ronayne recommends looking within your organization for other, healthier opportunities. But if you do leave, be direct about why during your exit interview. This gives the company data and documentation they can act on in the future. Just do it like the professional you are. There’s no need to one-up your soon-to-be-former boss and showcase toxic behaviors yourself on your way out.

Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.

Updated 1/24/2023