Bad bosses can be found in most work environments. How we choose to handle our situation and our responses can decide if we have grown from the situation or participate in toxic drama.

We have all been there. We begin working a new job, only to realize our boss is not the ideal manager. The longer we work for them, the worse the situation gets. A downward cycle commences as we, in turn, respond negatively to our boss and environment.

Great employees may become lackluster or even toxic, and skilled individuals end up leaving a company, sometimes to the detriment of both. Despite the flaws and challenges one can encounter with a bad boss, there are ways to both survive and thrive in such a situation.

Better understanding our bosses and their motivations, while also understanding ourselves and taking radical responsibility for our responses can turn an experience with a bad boss into an opportunity for both personal and professional growth.

What Traits Make For a Bad Boss?

Emotional intelligence (EI), has been described as the sine qua non of leadership by author and emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence involves being able to accurately asses and understand our own and others’ emotions. It also has to do with the capacity to make good decisions, even when experiencing strong emotional reactions. Bad bosses are often challenged in that regard and lacking in overall emotional intelligence development.

Leaders who exhibit poor emotional intelligence struggle with knowing how to approach and communicate effectively with their employees. Even more damaging, is their tendency to act out their negative emotions at work without understanding the effect it can have on other people. Bosses lacking in emotional intelligence and good communication skills often create a tense and even abusive environment for employees.

Another trait of bad bosses is their inability to give or share credit, sometimes taking all the credit for their employees’ successes. At the same time, they may have difficulty with accountability and blame their failures on employees rather than owning their own shortcomings.

Micromanaging is another common tendency of bad bosses, where instead of creating a supportive and trusting environment, they suffocate their employees’ creativity and initiative out of their own fear-based need for control. All of these tendencies of bad or ineffective bosses undermine the morale and well-being of employees and lead to significantly diminished results and opportunities for everyone.

Typical Ways We Respond to a Bad Boss

While a poor leader is difficult to contend with, our own behaviors can exacerbate the situation. When we, as employees, feel our boss’s treatment is unfair or our work environment is unsafe, we may perceive the leader as a threat and then seek other employees to ally with for protection. The divisive tendency creates workplace drama, which undermines team chemistry and effectiveness. These issues can lead to employees undermining their own and each other’s success and growth.

Stephen Karpman, Ph.D., a psychologist, and transactional analyst, developed an inverted triangle model with its apex pointing downwards, now widely known as Karpman’s Drama Triangle. According to Karpman’s model, there are three essential roles in driving negative drama: The Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer.

The Victim attributes drama and stress to external people, creating a “poor me” mentality. The Persecutor uses behaviors like judging, criticizing, dominating or even abusing to regain or maintain a sense of control. The Rescuer plays their part by trying to fix others and the situation, while feeding their ego and also seeing control or power over others. All three mindsets tend to flourish within a company culture underneath a bad boss.

Radical Responsibility® for Growth

Despite the damage done by a bad boss, a University of Central Florida study found that a leader’s abuse and mistreatment does not necessarily repeat itself with lower-level managers. Instead, those who have been mistreated by their boss appear able to reframe their experience to become better leaders themselves.

The key to changing workplace toxicity and drama is to change the dynamic. Poor emotional intelligence can result in an ineffective or even harmful boss, and developing greater emotional intelligence can change how employees interact with a bad leader.

An important first step is to identify aspects or abilities of our boss that we can respect and admire, focusing more on the positives rather than flaws. By changing perspective, we can begin to understand that flaws, even significant ones, do not completely define a person, make them evil, or mean they are out to get us.

Having gained a level of appreciation for a boss’s strengths, we can also increase our empathy by reflecting on challenges or personal difficulties, which they may be struggling with. We can seek to understand the motivating factors behind their negative traits and behaviors, which is generally a fear in some form, fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of disapproval, fear of vulnerability, or even fear of success. Fear often causes decent people to exhibit negative traits and also underlies an unwillingness to be accountable for our own mistakes.

The second part to overcoming a poor relationship with a boss is to be responsible for our own responses and attitudes. Rather than falling into the victim mindset or jumping on the Drama Triangle with other employees, we can ask questions like, “What can I do if I don’t like this situation?” “What can I do to create a different situation, relationship or result with my boss?”

As human beings interacting, we are all influencing each other and contributing to each other’s conditioning for better or worse. So, how we choose to respond to both bad and good behaviors from our leaders can influence how they interact with us in the future. 

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices, behaviors, and the quality of our personal and professional relationships. By embracing radical responsibility for our feelings, behaviors, and results while shifting from projection and blame to reflection and ownership, we can keep our focus on professional growth and even transform challenging situations with bad bosses. In doing so, we exhibit more self-leadership, integrity, and competency to become positive leaders and influencers for everyone with whom we work with.

Fleet Maull, PhD, CMT-P, author of Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good, is a consultant, trainer, and executive coach who facilitates deep transformation for individuals and organizations through his philosophy and program of Radical Responsibility®.