10 toxic traits of bad bosses

If you recognize your boss (or even yourself) among these examples — well, at least you're not alone.

intro toxic boss gas mask
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Setting the tone

What makes a toxic boss? Sometimes, you can recognize one right away. Take the story we heard from a government procurement contractor who, like many of our correspondents, wished remain anonymous. Called into a conference room for his first one-on-one meeting with his new project manager, he tried to explain the pros and cons of the job — while she "bit off her fingernails and spit them into the air, landing on the large oak conference table."

"That set the tone for the following year of hell," he says.

Not every bad boss is quite so ... demonstrative. But we hope the following stories will stand out as examples of who not to be if you're in a position of leadership. And if you recognize your boss here — well, at least you're not alone.

2 misunderstand confuse puzzled duh
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They misunderstand

Most leaders know they have to make themselves understood to their subordinates — but they also have to understand what their direct reports are telling them. Bad communication can send relationships spiraling into chaos. An IT manager at a financial institution told us about one boss he had who "would twist or misremember conversations, so after every conversation I would send a follow-up email as a written record and paper trail of what we discussed. I sometimes felt the need to talk him through the email about the conversation we just had. At some point he asked me to start sending him weekly status reports; they usually required a lot of explanation, so it was easier if I just wrote the report as him so that he could copy/paste it into his report to his boss."

3 undermine negative override
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They undermine

Leaders need to be honest about subordinates' performance — but relentless negativity and belittlement serves nobody, and are signs of a relationship that's broken. Ashley Helms describes a boss she worked for at a small local IT company, "one of those people who always had to be right; everything had to be his idea. He would tell me to do what I think was best, and then he would tell me all the reasons why my ideas were wrong and why we were going to use his ideas instead. He would constantly tell employees we were the reasons his business was failing." And when Helms and another employee left to found their own digital marketing agency, he "called the local Chamber of Commerce and told them they'd better not show us any favoritism."

4 criticize without coaching critical vague parental
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They criticize without coaching

Perhaps the only thing worse than a boss who constantly criticizes is one who does so in vague terms and refuses to offer constructive criticism. "MaryAnne" told us the story of her first boss, "Steve," who essentially treated her as his personal assistant even though she was supposed to support multiple departments. Steve would "write these tirade-long emails describing everything I'd done wrong that particular day — but if I attempted to talk about it with him, he'd brush the email off as if it were 'no big deal,' once laughing and saying, 'Guess I had too much time on my hands on the train!' I never did get the chance to hear from him how I could improve and do better."

Then there are managers whose interaction styles are simply baffling. Rich Franklin, Director of Recruitment at KBC Staffing, relays a story from one client who told him that "my vice-president told me that I was being rude during our meeting. I asked what I had done wrong and she glowered at me and said 'You know what you’re doing.' I repeated the question and clarified that I didn’t actually know and she almost spat out 'I don’t have time for this behavior' as she got up and left the room." No matter how upset you are, you need to recognize when you're not connecting. 

"Being a boss means you need to nurture your employees and help them improve," MaryAnne says. "I've since found superiors that do this, but he was not one."

5 overpromise overconfident yes man
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They overpromise

On the other hand, you don't want your boss to have so much confidence in your abilities — or such a fear of telling someone else "no" — that they routinely commit you to goals that are impossible to meet. "The worst toxic boss for me was one who had a habit of pacifying the client with promises our team couldn’t deliver," says business process re-engineer Aleida Dikland. "When any of us pointed out that his commitment was mathematically impossible, he would stand over us yelling how easy it would be to fire us all and replace us overnight. He had no response when I asked him to demonstrate how it could be done. I trained 30 people that year; none of whom remained longer than a month."

6 passive aggressive nervous breakdown psychotic
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They are passive aggressive

Too often managers will wage passive-aggressive wars—especially when they know they're fundamentally in the wrong. One anonymous PR and marketing exec told us that her boss, who initially gave her nothing but positive feedback, suddenly was determined to oust her when she got pregnant, but refused to come out and say so for obvious reasons. Instead, "she began micromanaging me. She told me she was surprised I've been successful in my industry, and asked to be copied on every email. She began following me to the bathroom. Her office overlooked my desk, and frequently, if she saw me not typing for more than a minute or two, she would ask what my problem was." Our correspondent was eventually fired when eight months pregnant — and bizarrely, "it cost her more for my severance and unemployment than if she had just let me work until I went into labor."

7 micromanage control freak untrusting
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They micromanage

Our PR exec was the victim of targeted micromanagement harassment. But some managers don't have any larger goal in mind; they simply don't trust their direct reports. Stacy Caprio, founder of Growth Marketing, rattles off a list of micromanager moves pulled from her experience: "Asking for a detailed list of everything you have done each day, every day, compiled in a full-sentence, bulleted email for his convenience. Requiring an Excel sheet with your time breakdowns for each task (this wastes more time than doing most of the tasks). Shooting down creative new technology and ideas because he doesn't understand it, and it makes him uncomfortable to deviate from anything that hasn't been specified on a bulleted list from his superiors."

8 narcissistic self involved selfish ego
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They are narcissistic

Executive coach Leslie Austin lumps many of these characteristics together under the umbrella of the narcissist. To her, there are a couple of root causes to this behavior:

  1. "They think they have to be this way in order to get things accomplished because they're deeply insecure and trust no one other than themselves."
  2. "They think it shows how powerful they are if they can boss people around and say and do anything they please, unedited, without caring about their impact on those people."

Sadly, many companies reward this behavior, she says, "acknowledging their accomplishments while not holding them accountable for a high standard of professional conduct with those with whom they interact."

9 sense of entitlement ego centric
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They have a sense of entitlement

Is it any wonder, then, that some bosses act like the one in this anecdote from another client of KBC staffing's Franklin? "I pulled into my parking spot, heard a crunching noise, and saw that my CFO (my boss’s boss) had hit my car. I got out to check on the damage at the same time as my CFO. I was about to say something to him when he just walked right past me into the building without saying a word. There were two witnesses who saw everything. I ended up having to go to HR to get the damages paid for by the company, not the CFO. As far as I know, he never had to pay a dime." Think about how that sense of entitlement must play out in the workplace!

10 untruthful lies liar untrustworthy
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They are untruthful

Finally, we need to keep in mind that there's more to leadership than managing employees. There's also the matter of representing your organization in the wider world — which can have repercussions for the workplace. For instance, "Hal" worked in tech support at a company that made specialized software, and an industry podcast gave a bad review to a new product version. "Our then-CEO reached out to the podcasters and claimed that their negative reviews were causing people to call tech support with death threats," says Hal. "This was not true. They invited the CEO to appear on the podcast to respond to the criticisms. The company made him take the product manager — which was necessary because the CEO knew almost nothing about the software."

"The CEO completely failed to answer any criticisms, repeatedly brought up Microsoft as a point of comparison, and really did not sell anybody on the product, though the podcasters agreed that nobody should be threatening tech support — which wasn't happening," says Hal. Just keep in mind that if you're tempted to put on a performance like this in public, your employees will be listening — and thinking less of you.