Toxic Managers

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Bad Bosses and How to Handle Them

It has been often stated by "them" (those who know things in the world of business) that "people don't quit jobs, they quit bosses." And we suppose it's got a grain of truth to it when you really think about the last few office jobs you've left voluntarily.

Doesn't it always seem to be one single person, who one day pushed you just far enough, to take all the reasons you hated your job, and make a decision to leave it?

What makes for a bad boss? Some are just plain nasty, but often, a bad boss is all in the eye of the beholder. One person's boss from hell may be another person's pinup. If you need regular direction, for example, you will be miserable with a hands-off, absentee manager, but if you have strong needs for autonomy you will flourish under the same regime.

Then again, the problem could be simply bad chemistry. She's an introvert and you're an extrovert. You like direction; she thinks you're "needy." You like to go home at six and she's a workaholic. So before you assume your boss is a complete jerk, ask yourself: Does she get along with others? Does she pick on everyone, or just you?

The key to getting on with a boss is to manage him or her by understanding his underlying motivations, which may be different than you think. Here are some common types of bad bosses, their motivations, and strategies for dealing with them. And, If you're managing an Admin Team look for yourself in these descriptions:

Stealth Mode Sara

She won't stand up for you. She lives in stealth mode, NASA couldn't pick this one up on a radar pointed at her office. The only time she's ever aggressive are the lengths she'll reach to avoid making a commitment to anyone about anything.

Why does she behave this way? Sometimes it's about wanting to be liked by everyone. This is extremely common in newbie managers. I call it the pendulum effect, which takes place when a manager is newly experiencing their first real chance to manage people. Some turn into bullies, thinking the way to lead is by intimidation, some develop jelly like channels where their spine used to be, assuming that good managers are everyone's friend and that being a friend means never having to say you disagree...

You have to be very judicious in your office support to make this relationship work. Avoid participating in highly charged or emotional conversations with this manager. Try to solve on your own, problems that could cause this manager to want to activate her "stealth mode" and avoid making a decision. However, make sure you inform this manager about your actions (the pendulum swings in both directions, thus in six months you could be confronted with a manager who thinks you have too much "power".) If you're happy with the position you're in, and don't want to leave it, then consider waiting this one out. A weak manager will either find her feet and become a productive member of a team or she'll be eaten by the more productive effective managers. Either way there'll be a change on which you can base a whole new set of decisions about whether you like your job or not...

Political Paul

He knows exactly what makes him look great. He will back you if doing so makes him look good, or meets another political objective. He will throw you to the wolves if he feels it's necessary, and he'll look like the guardian of all that's good and just when he does it.

To survive with a political manager, you need to make an ethical self-judgment.

Is his political oriented backstabbing at a level you can live with? Assuming of course, you don't become his target at some point? If your answer is yes, then find ways to make him look good, feed his need for recognition by doing so in ways that are truthful and company oriented.

Be prepared to share or be entirely absent from the warm glow of "atta girl's" you won't get them with this manager, you might, however, come out of this relationship with the reputation that you're a "can do" team member who rocks when it comes to the big ticket projects.

That's the single benefit of working with Political Paul, he goes for the high profile projects within his sphere of influence. He's got Teflon shoulders so nothing negative sticks to him (at least not often) and thus you get to be part of a perceived winning team.

Beware however, that Political Paul's occasionally back the wrong party and they generally have a shelf life comparable to Stealth-Mode Sara.

And, when you've got a project that you want to take on yourself, when you tell Paul about it, be sure to mention the potential importance to senior management. A sure fire way to take on some extra responsibilities without alienating your political bossie.

Thick Thomas

Okay, he probably doesn't actually have the brain of. Surely he wouldn't have made it thus far with your company if that were the case? Mmm? I see. Maybe not. However, be very sure before you make a judgment about Thomas's intellectual ability.

Often the best managers have a cognitive style that places them in a high listening mode while they process information. At times, this can make them appear slow to you and even to others around them, but they live in a world where they're judged on performance. You find a lot of Thomas' in the engineering fields, Architects, Accountants and even some types of lawyers. (Please everyone, don't write to me and tell me how non thick your employer is, these are examples!)

If your employer is a fact oriented, information processor, learn to deliver information to him in a way that he processes most quickly. You'll find him getting distressed if you wrap information in lots of layers of stuff he views as extraneous. Providing information to Thick Thomas, which is non-exaggerated, will have him doing back flips to keep you, he doesn't find many support professionals who understand his needs. You'll most often be able to create a strong partnership with this manager.

Obsessive Olive

She trusts you all right, like she'd trust her three year old in a sweet shop. No matter how much you give her it's never enough, or it's not what she asked for. You spend more time redoing work for Olive than you ever thought possible, your motivation is gone, in fact you're so demoralised you may even have trouble looking for a new position to escape her. You've begun to believe the messages she communicates. Staying with Olive (should you decide you want to) again asks you to step into an analytical mode. Sometimes with the Olives of the world it's worth it, sometimes not.

You'll need to determine whether Olive doesn't trust you because she thinks you're not competent, or because she's got her own control issues. Creating scenarios where you feel in control and powerful are crucial to working for an Olive. Take on extra work that's outside of your department if possible, get involved in your company newsletter, intranet, anything to create an occasional assignment where you can get some reassurance that you're good at what you do.

It's reassuring to know that while the Olives of the world can appear to be in control of their entire world, their shelf life, like many of the toxic managers is a short one. Managers who don't grow beyond this way of managing people eventually run out of victims and end up punching beyond their weight in the corporate food chain with typical results.


You have absolutely no direction at all. She's clueless about what you do all day, and you're killing yourself. No one in your immediate work group gives you any kind of feedback. The plaque on her office door should read: "I'm Not here, I am hardly ever here and I have lots of very good reasons for not being here".

While this manager looks at first, like our Stealth Mode Sara, even a Stealth Mode manager is there. They just keep as low a profile as possible.

Invisi-manager may be genuinely too busy to be in the office, her time management skills may be really poor which causes her to lose time spinning her wheels when she should be driving somewhere. There may be an overall lack of management skills. The end result is minimal contact with this manager, which may mean difficulty in completing assignments on time, yours and hers. Sometimes she'll have a negative reaction to you trying to organise her a bit more. She'll view it as a control issue and squash you like an ant if you try to get her organised without her buy-in.

Maximising your time with this manager is essential. While you may only see her for an hour each week, it's up to you to make that hour count. This manager would adore you walking behind her with a steno pad, taking shorthand. It's not about being submissive; it's going to be about squeezing every drop of productivity out of your time with this manager, and creating a scenario where she will respond to you if there's something urgent. Having sense to play that "Urgent!" card, only when it really is, will go a long way towards keeping this manager happy with you and keeping you both productive.

Working with this manager in the long term is the perfect position for an admin who enjoys her autonomy. It's not for you if you've not been successful in the past with taking the occasional risk.

The Barracuda

He or she is totally ruthless and seems to enjoy keeping pets. Unfortunately you're not one of them, you know too much about him to be a valued pet. He appears to take pleasure in making you uncomfortable. Often, managers who are task focused are so intent on their tasks that they have no idea how you perceive their communication style.

Sometimes there's really a heart of gold under that ugly outer layer, but if you don't tell the Barracuda how he or she is impacting you they'll never notice it on their own.

Try a gentle confrontation with this manager. Try this as a test "I feel a bit less than adequate when you say things like that Mr. Jones, is there something I could do differently?" If the Barracuda gets angry or defensive, chances are good this is long-term just plain nasty behaviour.

If he or she thinks about what you've said and makes an effort then chances are again good, that this is behaviour that wasn't intentional, therefore you've a good chance of creating a working relationship with the Barracuda.


It doesn't really matter what type of category your employer fits into, your first decision-making process about the long term with this individual needs to be built on communication. Don't personalise the behaviour:

Not: "You're always YELLING at me!"

Try a gentle approach to test the waters first:

I wonder if you realised how loudly you were talking the other day when I had made that error, it almost felt like you were yelling at me

Make sure you offer lots of face saving space by prefacing comments with terminology such as " you may not realise", "I wonder if you noticed".

Always give a manager a way to say gracefully, "no actually I hadn't realised that." Sometimes that will be a truthful statement.

If none of these strategies work for dealing with difficult managers, you have three choices.

  1. Stay in your job because you see eventual career progression and develop other coping strategies for the growing levels of toxicity
  2. Try to transfer to another manager within your existing company
  3. Leave the job and find something that makes you feel like a professional and where you're treated as one

And yes, we know that for every Barracuda, or Political Paul, there are thousands of wonderful supportive managers. Why not write to us at and tell us about your best experiences with bosses?

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