Dealing with a Toxic Boss? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

My boss is just awful. He is the son of a friend of the owner, and the owner has no idea how he treats people. Although he comes from a company in our industry, where he was the operations manager, he really doesn’t understand how different things are here.

I love my job. I have been doing it for over twenty years, and I am acknowledged by everyone in the company (except my boss) as knowledgeable and masterful. I have also won several awards from peers in my industry. I speak at conferences, am regularly asked to contribute to panels, and many people have sought me out as a mentor.

And yet my boss treats me like an idiot—and regularly calls me one. He frequently questions my decisions, even though he has no idea what he is talking about. It wouldn’t matter as much if his antics didn’t waste enormous amounts of my time.

Some of my work does require me to make educated guesses—we are in the fashion industry—so trend intel is helpful but really only gets us so far. So I have to rely on my intuition and experience. More often than not, I nail it, which is why I have my job. Very occasionally, I miss the mark.

When that happens, my boss quite literally crows about it to everyone, boasting that he knew it all along. (I am sure he would say “I told you so,” except that he has never accurately predicted failure.) He seems hell-bent on trying to ruin my reputation—and I believe he would succeed, if everyone in town didn’t know me well and also see him as a complete loser.

I have read many books on dealing with difficult people, managing conflict, and having difficult conversations. Essentially, I have tried everything to no effect. In fact, the harder I try, the worse he seems to get.

I fantasize about something bad happening to him, which is not at all like me. I have put a great deal of study and effort into evolving myself to be a spiritual person but this whole situation is testing me beyond my limits. I have to control myself not to obsess about him and not to spend every social interaction complaining to my friends.

This experience makes me feel hateful. It is casting a shadow on my entire life now. I am hoping you have some ideas for me.

Feeling Hateful


Dear Feeling Hateful,

I do have some ideas. But first let me share that you’re not alone: Here is a recent article reporting that a little over one-third of people say they work with a toxic boss. Respondents describe feeling dread about going to work, increased anxiety, recurrent nightmares, and the need to seek therapy as outcomes of having a toxic boss.

I can’t imagine how the knowledge that so many are suffering along with you will make you feel better, except to prove you are in good company. The term soul-crushing is no exaggeration, because, as you describe, feeling so disrespected can make a person feel that they are changing at their very core.

This is a classic situation where you have three choices.

  1. Change yourself.
  2. Change the situation.
  3. Remove yourself from the situation.

So. You might as well take this opportunity to change yourself, no matter what else you choose to do. Since you have already done your homework about how to shift your communication style, the next step is to work on increasing your self-regulation. If there was ever a time to rise above and be the grownup, it is now.

You could practice distancing—a technique to reduce the emotional impact of events that generate outsized overwhelming feelings. To distance, relate the story of the latest outrage as if it happened to someone else. It might sound like this: “My friend Lucy has the worst boss; wait till you hear what he did. First, he called her at 11 PM, and then yelled at her the next day for not picking up. You know Lucy—she goes to bed at 10 and always puts her phone on silent. Then he dressed her down in front of her entire team. He literally called her a ‘moron’ and a ‘slacker,’ if you can believe it. Lucy! The hardest worker we know!” I know this sounds a little weird, but try it and see if it helps.

Another possibility is to look to your spiritual training and practice mindfulness, which means to observe your own thoughts and feelings with curiosity and without judgment. I might submit that some of your discomfort comes from your adding to the negative experience by piling on judgment of yourself about how defensive and irate it makes you feel. Instead of judging yourself for every hostile thought you have, just notice that you have a hostile thought. And let it just be. Let it not mean anything about you.

The hallmark of any sound spiritual practice is to treat every interaction with someone who makes you enraged as if the person is a spiritual teacher. You might ask yourself: What is there for me to learn here? How might this support my evolution as a spiritual person? I am laughing as I type this, because I know myself how devilishly difficult it is. When I try to do it, I mostly fail. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. I mean, let’s face it, it’s easy to be our best selves when everything is going well. You know that’s true—and if you hate me right now, I can’t blame you.

Once you are feeling a little more self-control, here are a couple of other ideas.

Would it be too obvious to escalate the meanness and the demoralizing effect on you and your team to the owner? They obviously know your track record and must rely on the value you provide. Nobody wants to be accused of going over the boss’s head and being a tattle tale, but in this case, don’t you think the owner would want to know? You don’t mention anything about them, so maybe you already know they can’t be bothered—or they have made it clear that they would take his side no matter what. But it wouldn’t do at all if you finally decided to jump ship and the owner was surprised.

If bringing it to the owner’s attention is not an option, you might anonymously leave articles such as Leaders: This Is the Impact Trustworthiness Has on Your Success or The Five Biggest Red Flags of a Toxic Culture on your boss’s desk. There is no shortage of research on how terrible bosses are bad for the bottom line. You might just leave a new one every week or so, and see if it makes a dent. You never know when the penny might drop for your boss. If he is just a regular numb nut, he could come around. But if he is a power-hungry narcissist who is trying to make you quit so he can hire his girlfriend, you probably have no chance.

This leads us to your final option. You didn’t say you were thinking of quitting, but that is always an option. Some might encourage you to behave so badly that he has cause to fire you, but I think that is beneath you and so disingenuous as to be unsuited to who you strive to be. Not to mention the potential damage to your reputation, which will be important as you seek to create a new opportunity.

So there you have it, my friend. You either learn to let the nonsense roll off your back and play the long game while trying to influence subtly; try to get the owner’s support; or, if it seems like you have no other choice, be prepared to walk away and create the next chapter of your career.

I am awfully sorry for how upset you are. The problem with committing to your own spiritual growth is that tests are part of the program—although I’ll grant you that this one is a doozy. This one feels like a Master Class. But I suspect you are up to it.

Remember who you are.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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