3 lessons on why toxic bosses succeed and how we can stop them

A new study found that many of us are working with bosses who are making us miserable.

A Life Meets Work survey of 1,000 college-educated U.S. employees found that the majority of them —56%— are working with toxic bosses. And these abusive leaders are not considered outliers. Over 80% of employees surveyed find toxic leaders to be a normal example of leadership at their organization.

When we think of toxic bosses, we may think of Hollywood’s popularized examples from Wall Street and The Devil Wears Prada. But being a toxic boss is not just Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly coolly criticizing your entire life with the calm dismissal of  “that’s all.” The U.S. Army defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.”

It’s a destructive attitude and behavior that costs employers $23.8 billion annually through turnover, legal costs, and reduced productivity, according to a 2006 study the survey cites. It also affects the mental well-being of subordinates working under toxic bosses—those with toxic bosses were far more likely to report levels of stress and a work-life imbalance.

But if they’re so destructive to the company and to our mental health, why do so many companies keep hiring or supporting them? Here are three surprising findings we learned from the survey.

1. Toxic bosses boost employee engagement in short-term

The depressing finding from the study is that in the short term, these self-centered bad bosses actually boosted employee engagement. But as the researchers noted, the methodology of the study plays a role. The survey only looked at respondents at one point in time and not over a longer period of time.

Employees who were less devoted to the job may have quit sooner in the face of a toxic boss, leaving only the most motivated to succeed to be surveyed. “What we see here,” the survey said, is “a collection of primarily highly engaged employees who linger in jobs they love despite leaders who treat them poorly.”

Translation: It’s not that we’re inspired to work harder from jerks, it may be that the highly engaged employees will stick it out and work harder in spite of them.

To help these good employees in a tough spot, Life Meet Works suggests providing employees with bystander training and coaches on how they can resist unreasonable demands and create boundaries. Also, having a neutral third party come in and assess the culture and senior leader performance is also a good option to douse fires before they grow unmanageable.

2. Toxic bosses thrive in win-or-die cultures

When failure is not an option in the company, a toxic leader’s behavior of “advanc[ing] one’s fortunes while sabotaging the autonomy and confidence of potential rivals” can be rewarded. 63% of respondents with highly toxic leaders said that they worked in high-stakes cultures where displays of weakness had to be avoided, mistakes were seen as irreparable, and displays of strength were required to be successful.

To avoid creating a system where these bullying winners can succeed, Life Meet Works suggests creating a reward structure with long-term checks on employee growth. Toxic bosses generally want the quick win that they can use to peacock in front of others. Companies can offset that by creating a longer timelines for success: link bonuses that are tied to employee well-being and continuous growth.

3. Employees stay with toxic bosses longer

You would think that people with terrible bosses would quit more often, but the study found the opposite. Employees would work for toxic bosses longer—about seven years on average— than the five-year tenure they would have with non-toxic or mildly toxic leaders.

Researchers suspect we stay longer with toxic bosses because the toxic workplaces they foster suck our will and energy to leave: “Employees experiencing higher stress and work-life conflict may be more interested in leaving but probably have less energy to engage in a job search. Tired employees may linger in the orbits of their toxic leaders simply because it takes longer for them to gather resources to get out.”

How to survive and even thrive under a toxic boss

As someone who has worked under a toxic boss, this insight resonated. During that job, I thought about quitting often but I put all of my energy towards treading water and staying afloat to meet my toxic boss’ demands. But if you find yourself working under a toxic boss, don’t despair: for a time, at least, it can actually teach you valuable lessons you can apply later on.

As a survivor of a toxic workplace, living through a bad boss taught me what not to do and how not to manage. Here are some tips that may be useful.

Overcommunicate: Toxic bosses are usually not warm, voluble people, and they don’t get their ideas across very well or deliver them effectively. That puts the burden on the employee to ask a lot of questions and provide a lot of updates. For poor communicators, I have learned to ask, “what’s a surprise to you?” so that expectations on my end can be clearly defined. Do daily check-ins to keep things from blowing up. TopResume’s Amanda Augustine recommends updating your boss with constant feedback: “When you overshare and keep your manager in the loop, they’re more likely to trust you’ve got everything under control and back off.”

Create strong boundaries: A toxic boss will usually be an energy vampire, draining all your time and effort and adding enormous elements of emotional labor to your job on top of the actual tasks. It gives them a sense of power. But energy vampires usually don’t want to work very hard; they’re more likely to take what’s freely given or easy to nab. If you’re putting too much energy in your work, allowing yourself to become trapped in a power struggle with your boss, or trying to protect fellow employees, that means you’re willingly sacrificing your own energy to their needs. Make sure that you set strong boundaries on what you offer and how much you give up, and carve some space for yourself. For some varieties of toxic boss, standing up for yourself politely will only increase their respect for you.

Know when to walk away: Putting up with a toxic boss is only worthwhile if you like other aspects of your job and you’re learning new skills and growing. In those cases, having a toxic boss becomes a lesson in managing difficult personalities, which is a crucial piece of learning for anyone who plans to rise to management one day. But if a toxic boss is keeping you stagnant and blocking you from learning or good opportunities, it’s time to move on. Your boss is not in charge of your career; you are. Sometimes it’s so easy to get locked in the ego trip and struggle of proving a bad boss wrong that high performers forget to look around at where they are and where they’re going. Remember to take stock of where you are and find another job if necessary.

Toxic leaders can bring down a whole workplace, but that doesn’t have to include you personally. Detoxify your workplace as much as you can through individual actions and company resources until you find dry land and can free yourself.