5 Painful Lessons I Learned From Having a Toxic Boss — and How They’ve Made Me a Better Leader

Almost everyone has worked for toxic bosses. Here are five ways to make them work for you.

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Mardi Humphreys290
Mardi Humphreys
April 22, 2024 at 10:22AM UTC
75% of American workers say their boss is the most stressful thing about their job.  Working for a toxic boss isn’t fun, but it is educational. I developed skills I couldn’t have acquired working for a good manager. Here are five: 

1. I learned to set real boundaries.

I learned to set limits on what abuse I’d take because my toxic boss was a bully: language (no cursing at me), humiliation (no calling me stupid), intimidation (no threatening to fire me for circumstances beyond my control). I used non-verbals to silently stand up for myself. When he invaded my personal space, I stood up straight and lifted my chin; a more powerful stance than cowering. He tried to make me feel small, so I tried to be physically as big as possible while repeating my mantra: "This is not appropriate.” 

2. I learned to document everything.

I learned to take detailed notes with times, dates and keywords. My toxic boss’s rapid-fired demands made it difficult to follow his instructions. When my boss challenged my perception of an assignment, I referred to my notes and asked if he’d like me to do something differently. For example, let’s say you answer your boss’s phone. He frequently loses the paper messages you leave on his desk, then accuses you of not giving them to him. Instead of paper, email his phone messages to him. Not only will you have an electronic trail, but you can also resend the original time and date stamped message when he says you failed to give him the original.

3. I learned how to communicate in many different situations. 

I learned to ask for clarification during our 1:1s. I outlined the resources (e.g., time, people, data) necessary to successfully complete a project and why I needed them. If his instructions changed from our last 1:1, I referred to my notes from the previous meeting and asked if his expectations had changed. I tried not to react when he offended me because my mouth gets me in trouble when I’m angry. I eventually asked a trusted coworker: “Do you see what I’m seeing? Am I interpreting this situation incorrectly?” Turns out, my boss was toxic to my coworkers, too. We formed a support group of sorts and helped each other document his inappropriate interactions with us in case we needed something to show HR.

4. I learned how to be comfortable networking.

I learned to get comfortable talking to strangers at networking events. Toxic bosses isolate us to reinforce their power over us, so I went outside my organization to find support. I didn’t have to look very far to find others to commiserate with. I discovered that almost everyone has had a toxic boss at some point in their careers. Now, when I meet people in that situation, I try to connect them to contacts in my network who can help them find another job.

5. I learned what I value — and what to watch out for.

I learned to define what I value in a manager (transparency, honesty, and accountability) and how to better identify toxic bosses during the interview process. This skill has prevented me from working for other toxic bosses.

Have a question about managing toxic bosses? Leave a comment to ask the Community!

Mardi has been compared to the C.U.L.A. Advisor in “Legally Blonde,” which she takes as a compliment. She loves talking about all things communication, marketing, and relationships. Visit her at www.mardihumphreys.com.

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