From plummeting confidence to skyrocketing anxiety, bad managers can wreak havoc on our lives and health. We spoke to four women on how they dealt with their troublesome bosses without moving jobs.
If you can relate, then know you’re not alone; a recent survey found that over 75% of employees said that their boss was the worst and most stressful part of their job. It’s an awful situation to find yourself in, and simply quitting our jobs because of a toxic manager isn’t always a financial or logisitcal possibility. So what is there to do instead?
We spoke to four women who survived a troublesome boss without walking away. This is how they managed it.
“I recorded all of her negative behaviour in a document”
Soma, 38, careers advisor and mentor
“In 2015, I worked in a job where my boss made everything 10 times harder. She would completely disregard my boundaries. It started with small things – she would walk into my office without knocking – and before long she was questioning the work on my computer and asking for constant updates on how my client work was going. When I took time to do admin, she’d berate me for not ‘actually’ working, but if the admin wasn’t done she’d question why.
She then started putting extra pressure on me to work on tasks that weren’t part of my job and to work through my lunch break to get them finished. I felt like I was being watched all the time and that I couldn’t be myself at work. I’d be scared to bump into her in the office corridors or kitchen. My mental health became so bad that I was often ill, waking up in the middle of the night sick with worry and crying myself to sleep.
Colleagues kept reassuring me that I was the best person for the job and that I was doing great, but her actions and words sunk my confidence. When you’re in that situation, it’s really difficult to know how to handle it. I subtly brought her behaviour up with management by telling them I felt uncomfortable around her, but they said it was just because I was ‘new’ and kept referring to their reputation as a ‘top company’.
I didn’t want to leave, so instead, I made an effort to only speak to my boss when I needed to and I kept the encounters brief. I recorded all of her negative behaviour in a Word document, too, as well as an account of the positive feedback I got from other colleagues to counteract it when she was being particularly mean. It really helped to look at it at the end of a rough day and be reassured that I was doing well, even if I wasn’t being made to feel like it. I was able to remind myself that my boss was just one person, and I had plenty of other colleagues that valued my contributions and respected me as a professional.
Now, seven years later, I’m a career coach and happiness mentor. I’ve taken the experience that caused me so much anxiety and turned it into a way to help other women going through the same thing.”
“I made it my mission to be successful in spite of them”
Mo, 48, technology consultant
“As a woman of colour working most of my career in technology companies, I’ve been laughed and shouted at for being different. In one of my first jobs, it felt like bullying bosses were everywhere. The culture was extremely macho: very competitive and hyper-masculine, but I was labelled “bossy, aggressive or loud” if I spoke up about anything and struggled to have my opinions heard.
The “boys’ club” culture meant that I wouldn’t have sales leads passed on to me, but then I’d be chided for not hitting my target. I was denied promotions even when I had tons of relevant experience, all because the CEO was better friends with the other candidate.
Taking any kind of action within a workplace, but particularly one where you already feel like an outsider takes a lot of courage. I did speak to HR on a number of occasions, and while they documented some of the things I said and offered me support, I never took it as far as taking official action.
Instead, I made it my mission to build a successful career in spite of them. I made myself the model employee and ended up turning things around in that role by performing better than the rest of the team. I focused on what I could control and did everything I could to outperform my bosses and show them up for their leadership incompetence. I won big new clients and handled large sales deals, even when my bosses acted like I couldn’t handle the pressure.
It wasn’t easy, though. I battled through the days feeling like I’d burst into tears at my desk. But I knew I wanted to endure it and prove I was capable of succeeding in the role, despite their discouragement. Whenever I felt myself getting upset, I’d take myself away to somewhere quiet to reflect and compose myself. And then, I’d remind myself of who I was – and what my goals were.
Eventually, it paid off, and after multiple manager changeovers, I landed a great boss who recognised my potential and promoted me to run the team. I think more workplaces need to consider what it takes to really be a boss. It’s not a status symbol or about power, it’s about wanting to create teams, and help people to perform at their best.”
“I sounded off to other people outside of work”
Leyla, 39, project manager
“In one of my first jobs as a project manager for a prestigious university, I worked hard in a very tough environment. I managed tight deadlines and challenging workloads within a small company, which meant it felt competitive at times. I’d always got along with the majority of my colleagues, but when a previous colleague became my manager, she slowly but surely turned on me.
Suddenly, she seemed desperate to shut me down to try to prove her knowledge over mine, even though I had more experience. She prevented me from liaising with staff networks, which was a key part of my role in building business allies. Instead, she took over and gave the work to another team member with zero experience in that area.
The rest of the team loved her and had no complaints about her behaviour, so I found it hard to consult people internally. Instead, I turned to external support groups, such as Acas, and sounded off to other people in my personal life to help relieve some of the anxiety and tension. Because the office culture meant that I couldn’t be open and honest about how I was feeling at work, I made sure I had proper support outside of the office from people who could see the situation objectively. The talking helped and made me realise I hadn’t been imagining her bad behaviour. It wasn’t a miracle cure by any means, but it allowed me to keep moving forward and not take my manager’s actions personally.
Even though I would never want to relive the experience again, it was the launch pad to a better career and I feel like a stronger person because of it. Someone who is much more sure of herself and her value in the workplace.
I’ve since built a team and I’m CEO of my own company, worked with fantastic people and made lifelong colleagues in spite of that experience. Often, it’s the people we want to escape from that motivate us to make long-term, positive change.”
“I couldn’t change her behaviour, so I changed my reaction”
Courtney*, 24, probation officer
“Things started to change in 2020 when my boss of nine months was promoted from a team leader to a manager. As a team leader, she’d always tried to create an equal balance between being our friend, but as manager, she was suddenly on everyone’s case all the time.
I worked as a probation officer and loved my job because it made a real difference in transforming the lives of former offenders, but it became unbearable because of a boss who just didn’t trust me at all. Not only did she seem to want to control what I did but she would pick small issues to make a huge deal out of. So, rather than allow me to be five minutes late (and make up the time later), I had to catch a train that got me to work an hour early each day – time I didn’t get back. I was always having to run my work past her, even when it didn’t require senior approval.
The situation was made more complex by the fact we were friends outside of work. Previously, we’d regularly go on nights out together, but when she became my manager, she chose to stop coming out with the team. She wanted to be respected, and she made it very clear that she wasn’t there to be anyone’s friend. In such a tight-knit team, I also felt under pressure not to rock the boat. I don’t think anyone had ever complained about her before, and to be honest, it was daunting to be the first.
I knew I couldn’t change her behaviour, so instead, I decided to change my reaction to it, channelling my energy into tracking my progress. Every time I successfully helped someone, it rebuilt the confidence that she’d knocked. I marked every single piece of feedback and where I’d had a positive impact at work, from helping in high-risk cases to seeing someone really trying to turn their life around with my support.
I eventually moved jobs for career progression and now work within a team that trusts me to do my job to the best of my ability without watching over my every move, and I am much happier. Still, I’m glad I didn’t make the move because of that boss.”
3 ways to tackle a toxic manager before walking away
While most HR experts would agree it is sometimes necessary to walk away from a toxic work situation for your wellbeing, there are also steps you can take to resolve the situation before making that decision. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Document, document, document
When facing unfair treatment by a boss, it is useful to document any instances of unfairness, mistreatment or friction in case you ever need them later, advises Alper Yurder, HR expert at Witco. “In practice, this can look like following up with written communication confirming expectations set by the boss or leveraging data to support your decision,” he says. You may never do anything with the records, but it’s good to keep them in your back pocket if you ever need to bring them to the attention of those who will address the situation.
Try ‘managing up’
While your boss’s attitude may not be your fault, Yurder suggests playing up to them by highlighting your strong work ethic through tangible metrics of your success, such as sales targets or new clients.
“By showing that your interests are aligned with theirs and that you want to succeed in your role, your manager will feel less need to steer your role and exert their own direction,” he says.
Jessica Chivers, a coaching psychologist, calls this ‘managing up’ as you’re effectively acting as the manager you wish you had. “When you’re able to show your boss that you prioritise the same things, be it new business, existing accounts or client outreach, you’re acting like a leader (which is empowering in itself) and increasing the likelihood your boss will listen to constructive feedback,” she suggests.
Have an honest chat
Of course, this is an uncomfortable and difficult conversation to have in any working environment. But if you do decide to have a conversation with a toxic boss about their behaviour, Yurder suggests opening the conversation positively. “Start by acknowledging your shared goals,” he explains, “and then you must be very clear about what they have said and done wrong and how this made you feel.”
If they aren’t receptive, then take notes of the meeting and consider if you feel it appropriate to raise the situation to HR or senior management,” he says. “A good HR colleague will recognise what’s going on and get to work diplomatically. An informal chat between all parties is a positive, neutral way to begin reconciliation, and sets a much more level playing field for potential mediation than direct confrontation might.”