What to Do When Your Boss is Toxic

Now that we understood what makes a toxic leader, let’s talk more about how to deal with toxic leaders. (If you haven’t already, read our How to Spot a Toxic Leader article.)

Today, let’s take a look at the abusive type who imposes the most harm. Overall, there are two forms of abusive supervision: the hot and the cold. [i]

The hot form of abusive supervision is often the result of lack of emotional regulation and proper leadership skills. Because they don’t know how to give performance feedback, they choose to criticize others harshly; because they don’t know how to control their impulsivity, they throw temper tantrums in the office when feeling stressed; because they don’t know any effective influence strategy, they use aggression, threats and pressure to persuade others.

The cold form of abusive supervision is strategic. These leaders use abusive leadership behaviors to purposefully suppress employee voices and manipulate others.[ii],[iii] They do so because they think it is the right thing to do — the smart thing to do.

They treat people poorly so others can be fearful of them and become more submissive; they play favorites to gain loyalty, build their own in-groups and exclude and exploit out-group members; they spread rumors about others in the workplace for their own gain. Even worse, these cold strategies are often coupled with network building with their supervisors, who gave them the power and the safety to do act so terribly.

A few research studies revealed several strategies for employees to break the supervisors’ abusive cycle. You can put this advice into action within your own life.

Abusive behaviors are often the result of power discrepancy, where the leader is the one holding more power and resources in the leader-member pairing. The abuse can be worse where the followers’ goals and resources needed are completely controlled by the supervisor.

Therefore, it is important for the employee to regain power within the relationship to break the abusive cycle.[iv] And we already know what you’re going to say now: “That’s great. But how do I do that?”

Read on…

To gain power, first establish your value in the team because the abuser won’t want to drive away valuable team members. Make your role essential to the success of the team. Instead of relying on your supervisor as the sole source of resources for completing your tasks, try to build relationships with others within and outside of the team to generate essential work resources for yourself. iv

Secondly, build coalitions within the work group. Like abusers of all sorts, an abusive leader tends to isolate the victim at the workplace so no one will be on the victim’s side when the abuse happens. To break the abusive cycle, understand the importance of forming coalitions with coworkers and build an extended network within the organization.

When author and journalist Dan Lyons described his horrible experience of months of abuse from his supervisor in the book Disrupted,[v] it is apparent that his supervisor chose him because he is isolated from the entire marketing team in terms of his physical location (he works in a different locale), his older age (agism is prevalent in the organization) and his tasks (he works with nobody else on the team).

Thirdly, build an extended network within the organization to gain coalition, build up your social capital and accumulate resources (to be less dependent on the leader).

Last but not least, set a clear boundary with the leader on what is acceptable and what is not. The abusive leaders often start small and worsen their treatments toward victims over time. If you can set boundaries as early as possible, it may help stop a lot of the future abuse. Also, avoid them if you feel you have to.[vi]

Meanwhile, the hot and the cold abusive leaders should be managed differently.

For the hotly abusive ones, they need formal leadership trainings. By teaching them proper communication skills on how to influence others, how to provide feedback, they will be less likely to adopt abusive tactics by default; by teaching them about emotional intelligence, they will be able to access proper emotion regulation strategies and how to react to tough situations.

If you work for this type of leader, other than the strategies listed above, try to communicate with them.

Let them know how their actions have affected you and propose a better way for you to communicate with each other. If communication doesn’t change the way the leaders treat you, don’t hesitate to protect yourself by reporting the abuse through formal channels.

However, for leaders who adopt the cold form and have succeeded, it is hard to deal with them. One major reason is that these leaders are often enabled by their supervisors, the culture and climate of the team or even the organization — where playing the game of politics is favored over the well-being of its people.

As the victim of this type of leader, be assertive and firm with your boundary. Be aware of what they are doing and don’t fall for their psychological manipulations. Tell them to stop and see how things develop.

What if all of the strategies described in this article don’t work? Run before the job takes a toll on your mental and physical health.


[i] Tepper, B. J., Duffy, M. K., & Breaux-Soignet, D. M. (2012). Abusive supervision as political activity: Distinguishing impulsive and strategic expressions of downward hostility. Politics in organizations: Theory and research considerations, 191-212.


[ii] Keng, F. T., Feng, Z., & Li, H. (2018, July). How Machiavellian Leaders Strategically Use Abusive Supervision to Overpower Their Subordinates. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2018, No. 1, p. 16410). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.


[iii] Rice, D., Taylor, R. M., & Forrester, J. (2016). The Noninclusive experience of abusive supervision. Is it hot or is it cold and why it matters. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2016, No. 1, p. 14067). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.


[iv] Wee, E. X., Liao, H., Liu, D., & Liu, J. (2017). Moving from abuse to reconciliation: A power-dependence perspective on when and how a follower can break the spiral of abuse. Academy of Management Journal, 60, 2352-2380.


[v] Lyons, D. (2017). Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Hachette Books: New York, NY.


[vi] Nandkeolyar, A. K., Shaffer, J. A., Li, A., Ekkirala, S., & Bagger, J. (2014). Surviving an abusive supervisor: The joint roles of conscientiousness and coping strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 138-150.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.