How to Handle a Toxic Boss

The "dark triad" of personality traits can create workplace complications.

Published: Oct 26, 2018

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It's quite likely that at some point in your career you'll work for a boss who has steadily risen up the ranks and yet to employees is a total nightmare-untrustworthy, self-centered, or impetuous. So the question is: Then what?

Experts say it's a mistake to quit a job purely because of a bad boss, though many do. The better move is to understand their motivations. A recent research study of 110 Singaporean employees and their bosses found that toxic people who maneuver with a high level of political skill are highly regarded by their supervisors. That doesn't mean they can get away with being poor performers. But they definitely know how to manage up. "They tend to be very charming to people who are above them," says Peter Harms, an assistant professor of management at the University of Alabama's Culverhouse College of Business.

Experts say toxic bosses tend to display one or more of what's called the "dark triad" of personality traits. These can be broadly described as being manipulative, impulsive, or selfish. Here's a primer on the best ways to interact with-and defend against-them.

Toxic bosses tend to display traits of manipulation, impulse, or narcissism.

The Manipulator

Known for being cunning at times to get whatever they need, manipulators are experts at playing people to their advantage. One way to deal with such individuals is to find a way to hold them accountable. Priscilla Claman, who runs Career Strategies, Inc. in Boston, once worked with a boss who would ask her to do a task, only to say a week later she'd made a completely different request. To combat this, Claman offered to be the notetaker at meetings, organizing information by topic, the person assigned the task, and the due date. Then she distributed her notes to all her colleagues and her boss. "It completely stopped her ability to manipulate me," Claman says. "I was controlling her."

The Impulsive One

Rule No. 1 when dealing with a boss who is impulsive: Don't overreact. Such individuals often don't mean what they say, and react out of emotion before letting logic kick in. Two days later, they most likely will have forgotten what threw them into a tizzy. The more flexible you can be, the more you can shield yourself and remind yourself it isn't personal. Janet, who worked for an impulsive and manipulative boss some years ago, was mortified when he once loudly berated her in a room full of colleagues. She found some solace when a colleague hung back after the meeting was over and quietly shared her own war stories. "I was in total shock," Janet says. "But that kindness really helped."

The Me-Me Boss

If you're on a team lead by a narcissist, your best bet is to do a good job and make sure everyone else is performing well, too. That's because such bosses tend to view their group as an extension of themselves. "If they're getting rewarded and praised, they'll see it all as a manifestation of their own egos," Harms says. The flip side, of course, is that bad performance can lead to harsh criticism. Some of that probably stems from the boss's own insecurities-or the fact that they, too, have a boss to answer to who may be elusive and difficult to read. Remind yourself that there is a cascading effect that trickles down to you. And your best bet? Find some way to help stroke their ego that will make them feel, as Harm puts it, "even more awesome than they are."

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