The inarguable signs your boss is toxic (mapped)

Bosses ruin jobs. Not all of them, of course – but three-quarters of Americans say their boss is the prime cause of workplace stress.

Under a toxic boss, your quality of work suffers, with knock-on effects throughout your career. Your work stalls, and your options narrow, because dealing with a toxic boss drains the energy and positivity you need to seek better employment.

And toxic means toxic. One Stanford study found that mismanagement in the American workplace could be responsible for 120,000 deaths per year. Stress causes cardiovascular problems, along with all the physical knock-ons associated with anxiety and depression.

But knowing whether it’s actually your boss at fault is not always straightforward. “Bad leaders are more similar to good leaders than they are different,” according to Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman. Good and bad leaders alike generally exhibit “intelligence, a high level of energy, a strong drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination.”

And yet, “the ways in which leaders are ‘bad’ differ enormously,” continues Kellerman. “the lessons to be learned from Incompetent leaders are, as you can imagine, not the same as those to be learned from Evil leaders.”

Kellerman identifies seven such types of toxic leaders in her book, Bad Leadership:

The Incompetent Boss is unable or unwilling to do their job well.

The Rigid Boss confuses inflexibility with strength.

The Intemperate Boss lacks self-knowledge and self-control.

The Callous Boss lacks empathy and kindness.

The Corrupt Boss steals or cheats to promote their own interests.

The Insular Boss is cliquish or unreachable.

The Evil Boss causes pain to further their sense of power and dominance.

To deal with a toxic boss, you need to first identify which type of toxicity is at play. And then you can action category-specific responses to each toxic episode – and work, step-by-step, on improving the conditions or getting out of there.

Detoxifying the leader’s new infographic guides you through the process of figuring out just what’s up with your boss. Run through the flowchart below to see which of Kellerman’s bad leader types your boss fits, and then read on for some powerful methods of coping.

For example, if your boss doesn’t interfere with your work but surrounds themselves with “yes people” walking on egg-shells, it’s likely they’re an Intemperate boss, who everyone’s afraid to provoke. This is a great learning situation. Figuring out how to stay calm and rise above the personal abuse will reflect well on you and prove to your boss that their shoutiness is a weakness rather than a sign of strength.

If your boss consistently pulls rank, threatening your job security or drawing attention to their greater levels of experience or accomplishment, it’s like they’re a so-called Evil boss. They feed off your anxiety to cover their own insecurities – and there’s no saying how far they might go.

In the case of the Evil boss, the 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke has the uncomfortable answer: “Evil prevails when good men stand by and do nothing.” In other words, it’s time to go above your boss’s head and speak to HR.

As Barbara Kellerman puts it, “for a follower to resist a bad leader ain’t easy. It’s hard, and sometimes risky.” Figuring out how to be the better person is a responsibility you have to yourself and your community.

Equipped with the insight below and capitalizing on your personal attributes, you can turn a toxic leadership situation into an opportunity to strengthen your skillset and your career prospects.


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Gallo, A. (2011). Dealing with Your Incompetent Boss.

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Cenedella, M. (2019). 5 signs you have a toxic

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