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How to check if your boss is toxic and what to do about it according to an expert 

Everyone has complained about a boss at some point in their career. 

But there is a big difference between working with someone who is slightly irritating and being undermined by a toxic superior. 

Speaking to FEMAIL, Lorna Dunning, a personal and professional development coach based in the UK, explained how toxic bosses impact your day-to-day life, hinder career progression and can cause damage to your self-esteem. 

‘They can turn the job you love into an anxiety inducing nightmare, crush your confidence, and kill your performance,’ she said. 

‘They may do this subtly, with daily micro-interactions which leave you questioning your capability and your potential.  

‘Or it could be more obvious as they unashamedly take credit for your work, publicly blame you when things go wrong, criticise everything you do and tell other people all the things they believe are your weaknesses.’

Here, Lorna explains how to recognise the signs of a toxic boss – and what you can do about it.     

Is your boss toxic? Professional development coach Lorna Dunning reveals he sign you’re boss is treating you badly and give tips on how to overcome it. Stock picture

Signs YOUR boss is toxic 

1. They put you down, ridicule you, or display rude or disrespectful, behaviour

For example, during a meeting they publicly tell you off like a parent, they dismiss your well-articulated perspective, put you on the spot for answers they know you don’t have and criticise you for not having them.

2. They show aggressive, angry, or confrontational behaviour towards you, making you fearful of their reactions

3. They take credit for your work or put themselves in the limelight.

Say you were the lead on an important project that involved a two-day workshop in Miami with important stakeholders. You built the agenda, briefed the attendees, made sure all pre work was completed, sorted out all the logistics and finally prepared your own presentation for the meeting. 

At the last minute, your boss stands you down and tells you that she’ll facilitate the meeting instead and you are not required to travel to Miami. You miss an opportunity to show your talents to key people, and the trip to Miami,

Remember: Not all toxic bosses know they’re toxic 

Lorna told how not all bosses can recognise they’re being toxic. Some might be doing it completely unintentionally.  

She explained: ‘Their behaviour may be intentional, or they could be completely unaware. Perhaps they learned from a bad boss and they don’t know any better, or that they’re just not good with people.’

However no matter whether your boss realises they are toxic, their behaviour can still have a long-term impact on confidence and performance. 

4. They put you in front of their mistakes

This is the boss who, spends more time packaging the story (spin) to avoid taking responsibility for a problem, than actually solving the problem.

5. You’re excluded from meetings that you need to be in to do your job successfully

Being in situations where more senior people can see your talents at work and is important for your career. A toxic boss may go out of their way to prevent that from happening.

6. You are not able to make decisions in alignment with your role / level of seniority

Some bosses may criticise any decision you make, insist that you run everything by them or even put administrative approval processes in place to prevent you having any autonomy. I had a colleague who wouldn’t let her team make decisions which meant she had to work evenings and weekends to keep on top of work queues. Her team would arrive each Monday, scared of the emails she’d have sent to them over the weekend, expressing her frustration.

7. You’re disproportionately focused on your boss’s needs, as opposed to the true priorities of your role and goals

For example, you drop everything to answer the call from your boss, prioritise emails from them, responds to everything they ask for immediately, even pausing all your own work and staying late to attend to their needs.

8. You’re questioning your capability in areas where you once felt confident, your self-esteem has declined

For example, you spend your weekends thinking about work, you work long hours to make sure everything is perfect or feel scared of making a decision.

9. You’re fearing the consequence of their dissatisfaction

10. You’re feeling overly nervous, anxious about work

A blow to your confidence and your performance 

Lorna explained how toxic bosses can affect people's confidence and performance. Stock

Lorna explained how toxic bosses can affect people’s confidence and performance. Stock

Lorna explained how toxic bosses can affect people’s confidence and performance.  

‘If a boss only offers criticism this can erode the confidence of even the best performers. Confidence is everything,’ she said. 

‘Without it, we spend more time focusing on our weaknesses, thinking about what could go wrong, operating from a place of fear, and this plays out in our performance. With a deteriorating performance, your career will slide down the same slope.’

She continued: ‘As a coach, I’ve heard enough stories to know that anyone can find themselves in a situation where their relationship with a boss is hurting them. 

The signs of a GREAT boss 

Knowing what good looks like can help. A great leader will:

1. Engage with you as an equal

2. Provide stretch projects and opportunities and support you to take them on

3. Champion you as part of their team

4. Give you praise

5. Give you feedback to help you continuously improve your contribution

6. Constructively (and hopefully, kindly) tell you when your output or approach requires improvement

 

‘They’re worried about their career, reputation and perhaps fearful of losing their job completely. It can very painful and debilitating for a person’s confidence and self-esteem. 

‘They work harder, try to be perfect hoping that they can find a way to satisfy them.’

How to tackle a toxic boss 

Thankfully, there are things you can do in order to deal with a toxic boss.  

Lorna said it was important to ‘sick to the facts’ and not let your emotions take over.  

‘When mistakes happen, observe how people get wrapped up in the story and emotion of it,’ she said. 

‘I find that if you strip out the drama and focus on the facts, you dilute the power of the toxic boss who wants to create a whirlwind.’

She also said that the best way to deal with a bad boss was to ignore their fuss and drama.  

Lorna added: ‘Try to remember your worth, constantly remind yourself about all past results and positive feedback and make it your mission to show up as your very best self. In most cases, an outstanding attitude will make you bullet proof.

Lorna said it can be particularly helpful to take your boss’s bad actions as ‘what not to do.  

‘This person is showing you how not to be a good leader. “You just screamed at me in front of 4 of my colleagues! Thank you! I will never do that to my team members”,’ she said as an example. 

She also said that a silver lining can be that toxic boss can be an opportunity to develop tough skin and to learn to deal with challenging conditions. 

In some situations, contacting HR or a higher up was the best way to deal with toxic behaviours.

And if all else fails, you can always find a way to exit the role of the company, and that your exit interview should address the behaviours you’ve found difficult to deal with or toxic. 

… and what you SHOULDN’T do 

Lorna also said there are things you should never do when confronted with a toxic boss. 

She said the following things were more likely to exacerbate the problem than to bring solutions.

Don’t try and change the person: People don’t change unless they make the decision themselves and it’s not your job to change another person’s behaviour.

Don’t try to kill yourself to please a boss who is not respecting your skills or talent:  You may be second guessing what they need, checking and rechecking your work or spend hours unpicking what you think could be the cause of their annoyance. 

All you can do is to show up as your best self, deliver to the best of your ability and seek to continuously improve your own performance. 

Say no to things that conflict with your personal values

Don’t let other parts of your job suffer because of that boss: You might find yourself meeting your boss’s deadlines but missing everyone else’s. 

A colleague told me that their toxic boss had a terrible reputation within the company and, through association, she was starting to be perceived in the same way. Be aware of this as you think about what to do.

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