21 September 2017Last updated

Features | People

Tackling toxic bosses

Is your boss a yes-person? A micromanager constantly breathing down your neck? Colin Drury talks to experts to find out how you can adapt to these managers – and still remain happy at your job

By Colin Drury
15 Apr 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Working with an inept boss who’s a mess? The key is to accept his flaws – and then become an ally and confidant.

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The change in the office atmosphere was almost instant, says Jemma*.

It was August 2015 and she was working in the job she had always wanted – as a social media accounts executive – in Dubai, a city she had always dreamt of living in.

‘I had challenging projects and really vibrant colleagues – it was everything I’d worked towards,’ says the 27-year-old. ‘I’d get up in the morning and couldn’t wait to get to office.’

Then, that month, a new manager arrived, and everything changed.

Her brusque attitude, hypercritical assessment of staff and micromanaging were initially seen as a way of establishing authority. But as the weeks passed, it didn’t change.

‘She contaminated the office,’ says Jemma, from The Greens. ‘She had a way of undermining everything everyone did. 
If she perceived you’d done something wrong, she would send an email saying so – and make it global. It was horrible. Morale hit the floor. People forgot about trying to innovate for our clients. We just wanted to keep our heads down and go unnoticed.’

By the end of the year, three of Jemma’s colleagues had left the company. She herself clung on until February, but as her stress, anxiety and workload increased, she too decided it was time to move on.

‘No one wanted to be there,’ she remembers. ‘In the end, I actually took a pay cut to move.’

Jemma’s manager was what psychologists have termed a Toxic Boss – and she’s far from unique.

The American Psychological Association reports that 75 per cent of people claim to have a bad manager. And while that figure may be an exaggeration – who doesn’t occasionally blow off steam with a moan about the boss? – there’s no doubt there are senior staff out there whose effect on those beneath them is nothing short of poisonous.

And if you are working for such a person, beware.

New studies show that having a toxic boss is not only bad for the company – their managerial methods inevitably reduce production and efficiency – but also bad for you as an individual: for your professional development, for your health and well-being, and for your general happiness outside the workplace.

Researchers from Harvard Business School and Stanford University in the US found last year that poor management could be linked to heart problems and acute stress in employees. More worryingly, because stress often leads to sleep deprivation, this, in turn, could spark a whole range of other health issues including kidney and liver problems, fatigue, poor skin and hair loss.

It gets worse. One expert, Professor Christine Porath of Georgetown University, also in the US, reckons having a bad boss can even result in obesity. That, she argued in a 2015 paper, is because experiencing rudeness has been shown to increase glucocorticoid levels. This is a hormone that boosts appetite. The more our body produces, the more we are likely to eat.

Along similar lines, a study carried out by University College London found toxic management can have a disproportionate effect on a person’s happiness out of the office. ‘One of the major causes of general misery [out of work] is misery at work, and this is especially true if your boss is uncaring, selfish and arrogant, because you are stuck with that for eight hours a day,’ says Professor Adrian Furnham, who conducted the research.

All that’s the bad news, then.

But here’s the good: it is possible to identify these bosses and adapt ways to neutralise their negative effects on you.

Friday speaks to experts – life coaches, psychologists and HR staffers – to offer you, first, the best way of understanding these noxious heads and, second, the strategies to remain effective, efficient and, yes, even happy while working with them…

1 The Bully

The bully revels in intimidation, humiliation and keeping those beneath her in a constant state of anxiety that what they are doing is, in some small way, not quite right. Sometimes this is explicit (shouting, critical emails with everyone on CC), sometimes less so (side comments, exclusions, ‘jokes’ at one person’s expense). But either way it isn’t pleasant.

Yet, say experts, it can be handled without resorting to the nuclear (and often messy option) of complaining to the human resources department. Key tips are to stay professional and polite, remain focused on the job, and attempt to open lines 
of communication.

‘Be honest and calm, and tell this person one-to-one that you are open to positive feedback in order to achieve the company’s goals,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, professional development coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai. ‘But do also feed forward that you feel some of their behaviour is counterproductive and should be stopped. That is reasonable.’

And remember, if things go too far, there are laws in the UAE to protect against workplace discrimination. ‘Make a detailed note of incidents when they occur, keep all emailed communication and gather evidence of bullying if needs be,’ says Fadwa Lkorchy, psychologist with Dubai Community Health Centre (DCHC). ‘When you report a bully to HR with this evidence, it will be taken seriously because no company wants this to escalate further.’

2 The Micromanager

This is the boss who makes you feel under constant surveillance – because, essentially, you are. They’re not just happy with running the department, they want to run your projects too. In short, they sweat the small stuff. And that means they make you sweat it too.

‘The result,’ says Priya Johnston, a UK-based higher education HR executive, ‘is that everything you work on takes longer, you feel less trusted, become less likely to innovate, and your sense of worth to the team goes down. And no one 
can fulfil their potential under those circumstances.’

Yet micromanagers aren’t necessarily bad bosses; they just tend to be perfectionists.

‘They are insecure and lack trust in other people to do the good job they feel they would themselves,’ says Fadwa. ‘This can be frustrating if you work best independently but it is a case of winning trust. Be proactive by keeping them constantly updated, asking specific questions on how they want something done, and staying, if possible, ahead of schedule.’

As the demands on them grow, these micromanagers will realise they need to cede some control. At that point, Fadwa adds, they will appreciate the competence you have demonstrated – and will, generally, allow you more freedom once again.

3 The Mate Manager

Everyone likes a boss who’s friendly, but few of us actually want to be, well, friends with the boss, right?

Yet some managers will positively try and ingratiate themselves with staff. Casual meetings after work, engaging in office gossip, and continually joking about – these are all signs of the inappropriate mate-manager. And while it seems harmless enough, it could spell trouble for you.

‘Bosses can occasionally be great to hang out with,’ says Canadian business coach Evan Thompson in his essay Why Bosses 
and Employees Shouldn’t Be Friends. ‘But everyone needs to have their own space and lives. If you see someone in a stressful work environment five days a week, it’s natural not to want to be around them in off-work hours.’

Furthermore, being in the friend zone could create conflicts of interests and cause resentment – and accusations of favouritism – among other colleagues.

So how can you politely avoid that without offending the boss?

‘The most important thing is to learn to set firm boundaries,’ says Dr Travis Bradberry, US psychologist and bestselling author of several books covering the subject including Emotional Intelligence 2.0. ‘Don’t allow his position to intimidate you. By consciously and proactively establishing a boundary, you can control the situation. Remain friendly with your boss throughout the day but don’t be afraid to say no to [informal meetings] after work.’

4 The Pleaser

A nice name for an utterly odious character. The Pleaser says yes to every demand from higher management – even if that means the workload and expectation that falls on his department is entirely unrealistic.

He would rather you work until midnight than risk disappointing his own superior slightly by saying, ‘Yes, we can deliver this project, but with the staff numbers available, it might take an extra two or three days’.

His catchphrase is ‘more (work) with less (staff)’. He’s often a borderline bully to those below. He cares less for the job than climbing the greasy pole.

Communication is key here, says Suzanne Degges-White, Northern Illinois University professor, counsellor and regular Psychology Today contributor. ‘Maybe you can initiate a heart-to-heart, sharing your concerns about failing to deliver on impractical promises,’ she says. Because this boss’s main concern is getting good results to impress senior staff, he may very well, she adds, ‘actually take the feedback to heart’.

Cindy from Authenticity Coaching agrees. ‘He wants the department to push boundaries but he also needs it to be sustainable,’ she says. ‘Feeding forward your concerns should have an impact.’

5 The Incompetent

We’ve all had them. Managers you wouldn’t trust to run a bath, let alone a department of a dozen or more people. How they got to the top is a mystery only beaten by how they remain there. Presumably she has some qualities. If only she’d make them more widely known.

Yet, while incompetent managers are often figures of fun, they are just as toxic as all the others on this list. ‘Working for someone who is clearly not cut out for the role is exhausting, frustrating and actually very demoralising,’ says Fadwa from DCHC.

The key to success here is to accept the manager’s flaws; share your own knowledge without giving the impression you believe yourself more qualified; and, thus, set yourself up as an employee that can be trusted, firstly, to do a good job and, secondly, to occasionally deputise.

‘Share the information that this boss needs to grow into the role, and you’ll become an ally and confidant,’ says 
Dr Bradberry. Next time a promotion comes up, she may just point senior managers in your direction.

All of which should leave you in a better position to deal with toxic bosses of all shades and shapes.

But there is perhaps one last piece of key advice: it’s just a job and, if you’re truly unhappy, there are others out there.

‘You should love going to work every morning because this is what we spend so much of our life doing,’ says Fadwa. ‘If you are not getting that satisfaction, there’s no reason you have to stay there. This is Dubai. There are opportunities everywhere.’

*Name changed

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury