Bad bosses: When the buck doesn’t stop at the top

It’s not always easy to read the signs that the person at the helm of the company is about to sink the ship. Once the wretched behavior becomes apparent and employees realize that they’ve unwittingly signed on with a toxic boss, they’ll have to weather some storms until they can find a way to part ways.

Bad bosses at the top create an environment of anxiety and chaos. The stress and long hours of the typical workplace would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but they’re compounded under a command-and-control boss whose self-absorption, incivility and manipulative tactics take center stage.

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Atrocious conduct at the top inevitably spreads throughout the organization and derails workers’ motivation and productivity. The result is a revolving door of demoralized employees.

Research shows that toxic bosses are the leading cause for employees quitting their jobs. But for a number of reasons, it’s not always easy to make a quick break. Until they’re able to land their next job, staff members must do their best to survive their unscrupulous and undisciplined boss. They’ll have to cultivate a combination of delicacy, dexterity, and determination.

Here are some of the inappropriate behaviors that bad bosses display, and ways to cope until you can break free.

1. Driven by ego

True leaders are concerned most with what’s best for the organization and the people in it. But your boss’s me-centricity results in self-serving strategies and decisions driven by a need for ego enlargement. You realize that your boss often gets played because feigned praise or flattery lures him into making poor business decisions.

Try to employ a bit of flattery of your own when you think it can move the boss toward an approach more aligned with the company’s best interest. But be sure to follow up with smart tactics for solving the problem at hand (even if you know it’s not what the boss wants to hear).

2. Turns on anyone who voices opposition

Skilled CEOs know how to assemble a reasonably stable and loyal staff who aren’t afraid to challenge their ideas or offer an opposing argument.

Great leaders know that they alone don’t have all the answers and they value each team member’s opinion. But when your boss displays a thin skin, perceiving any opposing suggestion or opinion as an attack, you know you’re dealing with a bully. This boss reveres loyalty to herself above the purpose of the organization.

Even though your boss goes off when she’s been challenged, set an example by listening to others’ input and giving it consideration.

3. Has a scattershot approach to goals

Any boss worth his clout has a clear idea of what he wants the company to achieve, and he’s able to articulate it to get buy-in and cooperation from his staff. But when you work under an unfocused, impulsive micro-manager, you’re faced with playing catch up each day with the boss’s project de jour.

You may have to stretch, but do your best to tie the latest venture into the company’s overarching vision or framework.

4. Doesn’t take responsibility

When things go wrong, a boss with any measure of emotional intelligence will accept responsibility, understanding that she must own anything that happens on her watch.

No one is perfect, and mistakes are part of learning and improving. But if your boss refuses to shoulder the blame and is intent on finding a culprit, show whomever the finger points to that you still have faith in the coworker’s abilities.

If you’re the one who’s assigned the blame, refrain from making excuses and don’t bother trying to explain your side of the story to your uncaring boss. Vent to your keyboard and as soon as you’re finished, drag the document to the trash. Never ever send it!

5. Plays fast and loose with the truth

A CEO is expected to be the face and voice of the organization and, therefore, needs to be disciplined in what he communicates.

Making extreme or off-the-cuff statements undermine the company’s credibility. If your boss tends to make unfiltered pronouncements, especially any that alienate people or blur the truth, do your best to neutralize the ire of clients or customers. Seek to restore confidence, if not in the company, at least in you.

Make it a point to answer your clients’ or customers’ calls and be a sympathetic sounding board for their fury.

6. Name calling is over the top

Effective leaders know to take the high road and they don’t get into the gutter and call people names. Such behavior doesn’t make the leader appear tough; it makes him sound like a schoolyard bully. Insulting taunts and remarks are undeserving of an audience, even when they come from your superior.

If the boss tries to engage you in his offensive banter, let him know you’re not amused and walk away.

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Traits associated with effective leadership – humility, empathy, collaboration, and uprightness – will always attract followers. But conceit, a lack of integrity and blatant cruelty will zap employee allegiance and send good people running for the exits.

Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-best-selling author of five books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots, and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, named in the Top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep.” She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit

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