Toxic Boss: 5 Proven Strategies for Surviving the Negative, Controlling, Toxic Boss


My boss is negative, controlling, and judgmental. He criticizes everything I do, which makes working for him feel like getting small knife cuts all day long. After his wife divorced him, he became increasingly difficult to work for. He makes caustic comments about “evil women” and seems to see me as a member of an enemy race. I find his behavior especially toxic as I divorced a similarly negative, controlling man a decade ago.

I’d quit, except there aren’t that many jobs in my community that need someone with my skills or pay as much. To get a job that pays as well, I’d need to commute at least fifty miles into a nearby city. Then, I’d have to pay for gas and would lose two hours of my life to commute time. As it is, I don’t have enough time with my kids.

I’ve tried to find an employer that will allow me to work remotely. I’ve had no luck and go home exhausted every night. What do you suggest?


Redouble your efforts to find an employer in that nearby city that allows you to work remotely for at least part of the week. You can’t keep working for this boss; he’ll destroy your self-esteem. Once that happens, you’ll lose the confidence you need to interview well and land a new job. Worse, you won’t be able to show up as a strong, positive, centered mom for your kids.

Assuming you remain working for him, however, try the following:

Don’t make his problem yours.

Don’t take his comments personally or allow his comments about your performance to define how you see yourself. Each time he belittles you, remind yourself what you’re doing well in your job and in handling the challenges your boss presents.  

Don’t sink to his level. Rise above his treatment by taking his finger off your buttons and responding with calm grace under pressure.          

Stand your ground mentally and emotionally.

Your self-worth comes from within. This means toxic bosses can’t steal it unless you give them that power. If you catch yourself responding to his unfair criticism with your own negative self-talk, remember that your boss’s words say much about him and nothing about you.

Create solutions.

Play by your own rules and not your boss’s toxic game. When you focus your attention on your toxic boss, you prolong the negative emotions and stress he creates. Don’t expect to change him; he’ll defeat your efforts. Instead, focus on solutions. Take every action you can that gives you back power and control, including looking for another job.

For example, if you work for a passive-aggressive boss who covertly attacks, remember he fears directness. When he starts a snarky rant, ask, “What would you have me do differently?” By doing so you take control of the interaction, and he has to answer you. As another example, if you work for an over-controlling boss, copy him on emails and flood him with regular updates. Over-perform until he backs off. If he looks at the clock when you arrive at work and leave for the day, don’t fret. Simply arrive and leave on time.

Detox through support

Toxic people take a toll. Strengthen yourself by developing and using allies who can provide you with new perspectives and insight. Even if you simply explain what’s happening to a friend, she may suggest a new way to handle your boss. If nothing else, you’ll feel better when you know others are rooting for you.

Out-gun him.

While toxic bosses may rule their organizations or departments, they don’t rule the world. If your boss regularly makes derogatory comments about “evil” women, he subjects you to a hostile environment based on your sex. Record him. Then, take your recording to your state’s human rights commission and ask them if his words and actions constitute illegal discrimination.

Finally, you may need to tell your boss, “this far and no further.” You deserve better.

(c) 2023 Lynne Curry

p.s. You’ll find other solutions to challenging situations like this one in Navigating Conflict, and Solutions: 411: Workplace Answers; 911: Revelations for Workplace Challenges and Firefights,

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7 thoughts on “Toxic Boss: 5 Proven Strategies for Surviving the Negative, Controlling, Toxic Boss

  1. Been there. Done that. Won the ‘game.’ And won the prize.

    I believe I wrote you about this a few years ago. My direct supervisor – my ‘boss’ – was a vague, poorly directed, micro-manager. He’d give me a task, without a timeline or outline. I’d put it alongside my workload and figure out where and how it fit in. I’d possibly achieve a degree of accomplishment on it and present him with some form of step-by-step outline. He’d critique it as if he’d already had the outline set up and my work was bring measured against it. That didn’t work, because he hadn’t provided any more than a simple one-line outline.
    He’d tell me – the certified professional in course development – that I could or could not use certain items to develop the course. Picture – make a cake, but you can use any eggs, or sugar. I’d explain that based on the audience/students, this or that was not only appropriate, it was considered absolutely necessary. He’d still balk.
    It got fairly nasty for a while, with emails that undermined the work being done, and set un-expectations that were impossible (the cake-without-ingredients).
    I finally requested a meeting with the CEO, who also had HR sitting in. I had the emails (they did too); and the (lack of) outlines, and my outlines; and what I now knew as the timelines; and the development standards/requirements, with explanation on how his demands were in conflict with them.
    I was told to take a few days off – to cool the situation – and to relax myself; and for them to digest it. We’d meet a few days later.
    I can only imagine what happened in between, but when I came back for the next meeting, there were changes in the works. He had a whole new approach that was a whole lot more clear and inclusive and a whole lot less ‘micro’. Our relationship became quite a bit more ‘cordial and respectful’. And the project was a complete success.
    It was almost like someone read your book in the interim.

    1. Dan, what a useful true story. Great analogies–and you had the perfect storm, a manager who combined micromanagement with an inability to clearly communicate expectations. Glad you pulled in the CEO. Way too many people suffer in silence.

    2. Dan–as usual, you have a great solution, and this one is tested and proven! I like the way you created timelines, in particular. Timelines prove useful in many settings, I can see–from my TV police procedurals to this kind of problem at work and for HR.

  2. These solutions–don’t make his problem yours; stand your ground; create solutions; detoxify with support; and outgun him–are great. I like the determination and grit of them. And they change the picture.
    The last one, I worry about, because I have some some very vindictive environments that are rotten from the top or at least the middle down. In a truly toxic workplace, complaints taken to HR or to the top may be “handled” by institutional betrayal–you get blamed; the solution puts you in more danger and more in the spotlight rather than really resolving anything, procedural delays allow the problems to continue and worsen, etc. etc.

    1. Susan,
      Well stated…and the crapshoot that you take when you’re faced with a showdown situation like this.
      Is the job worth it to you? If it is, wade in loaded and prepared to win. If not, plan a good exit strategy and give them the option of losing you or winning your continued work.
      I didn’t mention – above – that I made it clear at the outset of the meeting with the CEO and HR “We have a problem. We can deal with this, or you can consider this my exit interview.” And I was prepared to pick up my contributions and efforts and move on.

    2. Susan, an important point — in some organizations you’re up against more than you can individually resolve.

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