The phrase "toxic boss syndrome" is widely used to describe a continuing workplace problem: the really bad boss. How does a toxic boss behave, and what can you do about it?

Consequences of a Toxic Boss

The word "toxic" is particularly appropriate to describe bad bosses because, as research shows, their behavior soon infects entire workplaces. A 2015 Gallop study, for example, concluded that about half of all workers who voluntarily leave a job do so "to get away from their manager."

According to another study, those who stay behind engage in passive-aggressive behaviors: drinking on the job; napping, checking into social media; shopping and watching film and television shows online. The productivity consequences are severe.

What Does a Toxic Boss Do?

Writing in Inc., Marcel Schwantes identifies several common behaviors:

  • They’re narcissistic and think about themselves, not their direct reports
  • They’re never wrong — but if something goes well, they did it, not you
  • They’re controlling bullies
  • But they’re confused about how to get things done
  • When there’s a crisis, they may disappear

What to Do About Your Toxic Boss

If the above describes your boss, what can you do about it? Well, you can always find another job. One thing to note about this strategy, however, is that a popular HR question for prospective hires is: "How do you handle a difficult boss?"

Even if you’re handling the problem by quitting (which should only be your last resort, anyway), you still need to come up with effective bad boss strategies.

What’s Driving Your Boss’ Bad Behavior?

The best way to begin may be to step back from the conflict and consider some larger issues that may be negatively affecting the work relationship. Unless your boss is completely crazy (unlikely, although you’re tempted to think so), there are rational reasons underlying the bad behavior.

Do outbursts of temper grow worse when deadlines are missed? Is your boss under a lot of pressure to improve performance or in the midst of a family or health crisis?

You need to think carefully about the underlying causes of your boss’s bad behavior because your solution has to be tailored to the cause. A boss who shouts and bullies because they’re overwhelmed requires one kind of response (finding ways to be helpful).

A boss who bullies because he thinks that’s the best way to drive performance requires a different response (standing up to the bully or asking for their help in giving you the space you need to be an effective worker). Until you understand the causes of the bad behavior from your boss’s perspective, you’re not going to be effective in improving it. Once you understand, ways to help the situation generally come to mind.

Understanding How Your Boss Communicates

Begin by thinking about how your boss communicates and comparing it with how you normally communicate. If your approaches are different, it may help the situation to mirror your boss’ communication approach.

Some toxic bosses, for instance, are never clear about what they want. If so, it might be good to go ahead and admit when you’re not sure how your boss wants a situation handled. Ask them to help you understand what you need to know to be more effective.

Other bosses want you to understand what they want with little discussion — they just want you to get to work. This kind of bad boss may react better to questions about how to go about things once they see the work is underway.

Each of these toxic boss types requires its own approach and the key to figuring how the right approach is, first, to put effort into understanding the problem from the boss’s viewpoint and then strategizing the available remedies to improve communication, reduce your boss’ stress and improve bad behavior.