How to survive a toxic boss

5 minute read

3875B750-4725-4914-87FA-21277ACE06AA_1_105_cI’m second guessing myself and I don’t trust my judgement anymore

I believe my boss thinks I add zero value and my motivation has dried up

I’ve started looking for other roles


We wrote recently about the problem of toxic leaders.

If this resonated with you, we have some concrete advice for tackling what often feels like an impossible situation.

Toxic leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but they inevitably share five characteristics:

  • They are self-interested rather than concerned with your needs or other people’s wellbeing.
  • They lack integrity. That is, they deny statements they made; break commitments given; and bend or break rules to suit themselves.
  • They pursue short-term ends rather than a deeper purpose or strategic goals.
  • They are often politically savvy. Toxic leaders are frequently skilled in managing upwards and in self-promotion.
  • They are deaf to feedback, and may be hostile and vengeful.

Understanding these personality features is a useful part of your survival guide. Since toxic leaders are primarily concerned with their own wants and needs your priority is to pay attention to your wellbeing.


Look after yourself first

Take your feelings of anxiety or fear seriously. Stay connected with whānau and friends and talk with them about your situation. Remaining silent or minimising how bad things really are will trick you into feeling it’s your fault and reduces the options you can consider. Good emotional support is vital to feel heard and cared for: it has a protective impact on your wellbeing and adds a protective buffer as you navigate the situation. If you can access professional support that’s often useful or look for someone who can be a “safe harbour”, a person you rely on for wise counsel and help you brainstorm your next steps. If you do have the resources, consider engaging with a coach or mentor with experience in this field. It’s ok to ask them directly how many people they have helped with toxic leadership and examples of what they can do to help.

It's also vital to look after yourself well. When we feel scared, anxious or depressed we may stop doing things that bring joy and satisfaction; so make sure you are eating well, getting quality sleep, exercising as often as you can, and scheduling in activities that give you hope. Seeking out positive experiences and emotions in the midst of a tough time seems counter intuitive but is proven to buffer stress and will lift your mood and mindset. This effect is both neurochemical and physiological: positive emotions signal our bodies and brains that a stress state is not required.


Consider leaving

One of the odd effects on followers of toxic leaders is that people than they quit. There are a few reasons for this: people like their companies and their work. Or consider that no one likes a whiner, so we put up with bad behaviour because everyone else seems to. We also tend to overvalue what we have right now (a job) and undervalue the unknown (Could I get another job? Could I get one before my money runs out?). We also fall prey to occasional praise or rewards in the midst of bad behaviour – like a pokie machine, this intermittent reinforcement keeps us hanging on because you never know when something good might happen.

But we do encourage you to very seriously consider leaving. Toxic leaders rarely change: you can read a terrible report about a Twitter executive here who told a Black colleague she could pass for white if she wore glasses. He was counselled, promised to change, wrote a memo to staff saying he would change – only for a colleague who had complained again about him to be pushed out instead.

If you find yourself arguing back against the mantra “It’s only a job”, you may be more emotionally invested – brainstorm all the reasons you want to stay to see if you can pinpoint what is keeping you hooked in.


Bend but don’t break

When we do have some ability to influence or control a situation, then generally active coping or problem-solving strategies are best – what are the things you can control and influence in your current situation? Importantly, however, if it feels that nothing or very little is under your control then research shows that a style of coping called “acceptance coping” results in significantly less distress. In particular, this style may be useful in workplace environments where people have low autonomy (control) over their work.


Acceptance coping

Acceptance coping is a psychological technique that helps you deal with bad situations. It means finding a way to be OK that we cannot change this situation. Acceptance is not a passive process and it's not giving up. Rather, it’s reminding ourselves, “This is how things are, for now.”

To practise active acceptance coping, you need to:

1.    Recognise and allow our thoughts and feelings about a situation, even if they may be difficult:

“I’m seriously upset about this, I would like to shout at my boss and tell him what I think of his behaviour.”

2.    Focus on your wellbeing:

“Maintaining my professionalism is important to me, I’m going to let this situation go today and not react.”


Control what you can control

For example, set boundaries around how and when you work. Build buffer zones into your role and your day – make sure that you give yourself recovery time after interactions with your leader, so you are not jumping into other meetings carrying the “load”. Other options could include reducing contact with the toxic boss: online meetings rather than in person so you don’t have to be in the same room, using emails rather than in-person or phone calls. These methods all increase psychological distance. You can also extend buffer zones by scheduling daily pleasurable activities as well as experiences you can look forward to. on your own.



Toxic leaders often cast blame liberally and the temptation is to defend yourself. Frankly, you are wasting your breath. Instead, try ‘fogging’: don’t defend, don’t admit that you’re wrong and don’t say that they are wrong.

So if attacked with, “You’re useless at your job,” you could respond by saying “Well, I can see how you might think that” or “That’s definitely one way to look at things”. This is a defensive technique – it won’t change the situation, but acts to disarm the attacker.

If you want to delve a bit deeper, an excellent guide is Professor Bob Sutton’s book “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt”.


Next time:

Suspect you may be a toxic leader? Or want to gently but firmly prod a colleague into greater self-awareness. Watch this space.


David Winsborough is the Chairman of NZ’s largest organisational psychology practice Winsborough Limited, and founded Deeper Signals, a business that helps people build self-awareness and change their toxic behaviour.

Gaynor Parkin is CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing who provide wellbeing, resilience, and mental health awareness training to corporate and government agencies.


Photo credits: Ganahl and Tom King