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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jude Black

What the Heck is a Toxic Boss?

Toxic Leadership

Not one person in their right mind would want to live, breathe, and work in a toxic wasteland. And yet, many people all across America find themselves right in the middle of said poisonous place every day. Their workplace. So, knowing that many of us need our job and can't walk away, how do we survive toxic bosses and overcome them? Through education, self reflection, and focusing on survival.


Most of the toxic bosses simply can’t do their job, let alone do it well. To be blunt, they are incompetent and lack the self-confidence to lead and manage. Lucky you. Toxic bosses rarely trust anyone, take credit for other’s work, keep secrets, find fault with everyone and often throw others under the bus to save their own hide. The toxic boss thrives on power and tends to kiss up [to those above them] and kick down [those beneath them] according to Dr. George E. Reed (author of"Tarnished: Toxic Leadership in the U.S. Military). The toxic boss leaves a devastating trail of carnage and destruction in their wake. In fact, toxic leadership has strong parallels and correlations with narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders.

A toxic boss may bully, threaten, use fear, sarcasm and intimidation to achieve his or her own goals. These behaviors are mostly to try and cover up for their lack of competence and confidence. Some toxic bosses are “explosive- types”. They are moody and unpredictable. One often see them screaming, hurling insults, humiliating subordinates- envision that dreadful playground bully. Remember Scut Farkus on the Christmas Story? Yes, he is an explosive toxic boss-type. It’s best to not engage, but also do not show weakness. This type thrives on creating an environment of fear.

In addition to “explosive types”, some toxic bosses are more “gangster type”. Gangster toxic bosses are dangerous. You need a visual? Al Capone comes to mind. He was outright ruthless and took out competition; they are secretive and to be feared. You won’t see them scream; however, they will typically dismiss and destroy once their subjects have outlived their purpose. Don’t make eye contact with the gangster toxic boss- that is like a non-verbal challenge and perceived as a threat. Do try to keep a low profile and do your best to simply survive.

Another type of toxic boss is the “stealth type”. Stealth toxic bosses create a caustic environment through the distribution of gossip. They have a tendency to spread rumors, fan the flames, and then scurry into the shadows like an arsonist who feeds off the thrill and excitement of the fiery destruction. Watch this type. Make sure that you stay true to who you are, “show up” for your job, and calmly (not defiantly) demonstrate the gossip/rumors have no merit. One may consider ways to self-promote without being obnoxious. Opening dialogue with this “stealthy type” may be necessary to clear the air.

A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

What Happens When Exposed?

When exposed to a toxic boss, subordinates may experience behaviors and symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There may be that “fight or flight” reaction exhibited through shock, anger, depression, withdrawal, numbness, and anxiety. According to research conducted by Dr. George E. Reed and Dr. R. Craig Bullis, toxic leadership behavior increases stress, interferes with interpersonal relationship dynamics and reduces job satisfaction for those exposed. Respectively, Dr. Judith Black’s research concluded that Army spouses exposed to toxic leadership, inevitable develop a “hunker down and wait it out” attitude. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness that “things will never change” leads to withdrawal. Some people stop trying to change the situation and resign themselves to “weathering the storm” with the hopes that it will eventually pass. I understand, I weathered a Toxic Boss for 6 months- that took over a year to come back from. My second experience? I Fired her @34! You can read more about that at Oh Snap! I Fired My Start-up Boss.

I want you to know once the exposure is removed, the sun does come back out and the hope slowly returns. It’s like a burn. If you move your burn towards a source of heat- it still hurts. A LOT!! The experience of a toxic boss leaves varying degrees of burns depending on the length and strength of exposure. Any type of “heat” (trigger) can cause the tender burn to react.



It is important to recognize this experience is an opportunity to reflect and make sure you do what you can to avoid the fire again. Intentionally seek positions in which you are valued and leadership skills are positive. Live with purpose and strive to be the type of leader or boss that builds up, rather than destroy; one who encourages and does not discourage. One who empowers and does not humiliate.

Use self-talk when something triggers you. Remind yourself, “Even though I went through hell, I came out on the other end.” There is no doubt that you may have moments in which you may feel weak, but flip it. This experience was wrong, but it did make you stronger and wiser. Fire strengthens steel.

Re-Frame the experience. That job was yours only for a season and never yours to own. The job was there before you came along, and it was there after you left. Focus on the things that you accomplished and did well during that season, in spite of the toxic boss. Your season had a beginning, middle, and an end. Consider journaling to work through this. What was the hardest part at the beginning, middle, and end that you were subjected to? What negative beliefs did that experience cause you to think about yourself? Now, stop. Flip it. “Even though I was subjected to this… I was able to do…”

Bad things happen to good people and obviously, good things happen to bad people. The stories we tell ourselves are the realities we believe. How you make sense that experience determines if you move forward or stay stuck.


About the Author: Dr. Jude Black is the CEO & Founder of E-Therapy Cafe. She is our Story Lover, Emotional Healer, Chaos Calmer, Change Catalyst, Resiliency Ninja, & Life Expert. To schedule a session with Dr. Black, click here.

E-Therapy Café™ is a people-focused, innovative online counseling and coaching platform for individuals, couples, families and corporations. The mission is to provide professional, convenient, and affordable, modern online therapy – anytime, anywhere for everyone. The Boutique Team of Licensed Therapists and Certified Life Coaches are passionate change catalyst, focused on realistic goals in today’s fast-paced world. The headquarters is in Northern VA with a nationwide and global reach.

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