24 Signs You Have a Terrible Boss, and How to Stop Them From Crushing Your Happiness
Rest assured, there is a way to cope.
By Shana Lebowitz and Allana Akhtar
If you contemplate handing in your two weeks’ notice every time you talk to your boss, you’re not alone.
A 2018 poll from job-search site Monster found as many as 76% of people say they currently have or recently had a toxic boss. Meanwhile, just 19% of respondents describe their boss as a mentor.
“A bad boss won’t just jeopardize your career growth — they’ll also negatively impact your personal life,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert, author, and leadership coach. “A good manager will bring out the best in you and have a more uplifting affect on all aspects of your life.”
It’s important to know whether you’ve got a bad boss on your hands so you can “take measures to mitigate the stress and own greater power in the relationship” as soon as possible, she adds. Some ways you can try mending your relationship include looking for commonalities to bond over, and proactively offering to help lighten their workload, CNN reported.
Based on an interview with Taylor and using the book “Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots” by Vicky Oliver, we’ve compiled 24 signs your boss will eventually crush all happiness you’re clinging to — and steps you can take along the way.
Jacquelyn Smith and Vivian Giang contributed to earlier versions of this article.
Your boss lies.
A boss who lies is untrustworthy — not a good foundation for a productive relationship. “Some can become so immune to their own stories that they can convince themselves that the lies are true,” says Taylor. “They may legitimize their fibbing by rationalizing that others do it, deflect this character flaw by pointing the finger to others, or use mistruths to generally hide blunders.”
Other bad bosses just can’t face the fallout that will result from telling the truth.
“Examine what motivates your boss to lie,” she suggests. “Make sure you have all your facts before you start any questioning. And remember that it’s best to encourage honesty than to go on the offense or use sarcasm.”
Your boss is never, ever wrong.
Learning to admit that you’re wrong is one of the best things you can do for your colleagues.
Ask Lexi Reese, the COO of Gusto and a former Googler, and she’ll tell you the best thing a boss can do is communicate to their reports the type of leader they aspire to be and then say, “But I also am human and I’ll probably f—k it up.” Most importantly, the boss should encourage their reports to let them know when they’re falling short.
If your boss refuses to admit that they’re wrong, this means they’re not willing to go out of their comfort zone for you.
A national independent study by Lynn Taylor Consulting found that 91% of employees said that owning up to one’s mistakes as a manager was an important factor in employee job satisfaction.
“Admitting to mistakes sends a message to your employees that it’s a safe environment to take smart risks — and without that, you’re sapping innovation,” Taylor says.
Your boss overpromises.
An overpromising boss is an untrustworthy boss. “You might have been promised a series of promotions, increased responsibility, or a raise, but all you get is silence,” says Taylor. “It’s often helpful to get to the truth through emails, if one-on-one discussions are getting you nowhere. If the responses aren’t coming via email, or at all, be wary.”
They’re quick to blame you for mistakes, but rarely express gratitude when you succeed.
Does your boss put you down in front of others? If you let it go once, it’ll happen over and over again. Good bosses know they should have this conversation with their employees in private.
Oliver suggests apologizing to your boss behind closed doors.
“While it may sound counterintuitive to apologize to someone for something that clearly wasn’t your fault, amazing things happen when you can bring yourself to do so,” she writes. “An intimate bond is forged. All you have to say is something akin to, ‘I blame myself for your outburst earlier today. Clearly, I’ve been relying on you too much. If you have any issues with me, I’d appreciate hearing about them in the privacy of my office.’”
Your boss expects you to be just like them.
Most people like others who are similar to them.
But good bosses know that different types of personalities can improve their team. According to Goldman Sachs HR head Sally Boyle, the best thing a manager can do to help their employees succeed is get to know them as individuals.
If your boss is constantly trying to cast their image onto everything you do, try following one or two of their suggestions and thank them for the rest. Stay true to your colors, but also show that you value your boss’ suggestions.
Your boss is a micromanager.
Is your boss so pushy and overbearing that you find yourself unable to accomplish anything efficiently? This may be a perpetual problem, so get ready for it early.
If they want a play-by-play of every meeting, email, and call, then take detailed notes of every business interaction and send them to your boss, suggests Oliver. Your boss will think that they’re on top of things and will leave you alone.
“By over-communicating with a micromanager or needy boss, you’ll diffuse their desire to constantly check in, while you build all-important trust at the same time,” says Taylor.
They have a pesky habit of calling you on your day off.
You put in your hours and get permission for a long weekend off, but your boss doesn’t hesitate to call you during your off hours. To deal with this kind of boss, Oliver says you need to set your boundaries early.
“‘Separation anxiety’ can kick in if you have a power-hungry boss, and you inadvertently chip away at that power,” adds Taylor. “You’re best served to instill a sense of comfort with a terrible boss who’s demanding, much as you would with a ‘terrible two’ toddler — whether you plan to take a day off, leave early, arrive late, or take vacation.” If you’re going to be gone, give ample warning and let them know that things are under control, with appropriate detail.
Your boss has favorites.
This will cloud their ability to recognize your skills and the value you add to the company. They also fail to see that they’re treating you unfairly.
“No matter how hard you work, or the results you achieve, they somehow become dwarfed by those of the teacher’s pet,” Taylor explains. “It’s worth modeling good behavior in this scenario, praising others on your staff or those in other departments, for their team effort. You’re giving recognition to those who deserve it and demonstrating the powerful impact that has for people like you.”
They don’t want to hear your viewpoint.
Stubborn bosses are as common as company water coolers. “But there’s a fine line between appearing insubordinate and arguing your case,” says Taylor. If there’s something in it for your boss, you have the best chance of changing behavior.
“Avoid the temptation to fight the same battles repeatedly. Change your argument to find compromise, and document your case if you’re passionate about your perspective. Just don’t win the battle and lose the war.”
Your boss hogs the limelight.
Does your boss constantly use the word “I” when associating with success? Do they fail to invite you to meetings to present your own work?
They may be intentionally keeping you out of the limelight so that they can stay in it, warns Oliver.
“Territorialism is in the DNA of a bad boss,” Taylor adds. “They can become glory hogs and take credit for your hard work. Your best option is to manage up and understand the real root of the problem.”
Their feedback isn’t relevant.
Do you feel like you’ve gained nothing after receiving feedback from your boss? Is it so vague that it’s not helpful? Your boss may either be unsure of what to tell you, meaning they’re not equipped for the job, or they don’t want to tell you anything useful, says Oliver.
Your boss could be withholding information in order to have some kind of advantage. This person is not a team player.
“You’ll have to decide if your career will remain stagnant reporting to this boss; if a lateral move is possible; or if you can still grow due to interactions with other senior members of the team,” says Taylor.
Your boss gossips.
When your manager spreads rumors or gossips about the staff, it’s disheartening and awkward — and entirely unprofessional. “Your terrible boss may try to drag you in, but you’re better off diplomatically staying out of the fray,” says Taylor. “Otherwise, you may find yourself inadvertently alienating others if word spreads further.”
Try segues that bring current projects back into focus: “Hmm, I hadn’t heard that. But while I have your attention, I’d like to mention some good news about the XYZ account.”
They tease or flirt.
Jokes that are at your expense can be upsetting. Bad bosses have trouble seeing that by relentlessly teasing people who aren’t their equals, it can be hurtful, Taylor explains. “They lack the emotional intelligence to see the difference between humor and insults.”
Equally as inappropriate, or worse, are bosses who cross the line and flirt. “It may not qualify as sexual harassment (if it does, don’t allow it and speak up early),” she says, “but it might be unwanted comments that are borderline, and seem flirtatious or awkward.”
If the comments are merely friendly and build rapport, great. If anything more than that, you have reason to push back and address it privately.
Your boss constantly changes their mind.
Does this sound familiar? In the morning, they tell you one thing. After lunch, it’s a different story.
“Pick the [suggestion] that benefits you most and pursue that direction,” Oliver advises. “Kick the habit of being dependent on him in the first place. Never ask for permission. Instead, simply inform him of your intentions. If he has a problem with any of your decisions, he’ll let you know.”
Taylor says fickle bosses are challenging, because they can trigger never-ending false starts. “And that can affect the initiatives you give to your team, causing a colossal productivity and morale drain.”
It’s often better to wait before going full bore on a whim from this kind of boss, she says. “Also, you can be the voice of reason by asking non-threatening, thoughtful questions about the newest idea or flavor of the day. That can give a terrible boss pause, and foster a more strategic approach next time you’re given an ‘urgent’ project.”
You’re not given a chance to grow.
There are few things more aggravating at work than being kept stagnant with the same routine responsibilities over a long period of time, especially after you’ve voiced interest in expanding your level of contribution.
“If you feel your sentiments are going unheard, you may still proactively demonstrate your more strategic skills on a current project and propose them to your boss; contribute new ideas to your boss’ pet project; get more specific with how your background and credentials could specifically be better tapped for XYZ initiatives; or, with your manager’s permission, offer to volunteer on a related department’s project where your skill set applies, building on your existing credentials,” says Taylor.
They’re passive aggressive or ignore you.
One of the most unnerving, telltale signs of a terrible boss is one who rarely lets you know where you (or they) stand. “Most employees would rather get direct criticism from their manager than face a seemingly pleasant, but backstabbing boss,” Taylor explains.
If they’re simply not attentive, that’s also a problem. “When your boss has the attention span of a fly, it not only saps your motivation; you feel like you’re spinning your wheels,” she says. “Try observing how others get the manager’s attention.”
Your boss has mood swings.
“Not everyone is even-keeled all the time. But a bad boss can be a charmer in the morning and a Raging Bull an hour later, depending on events of the day,” Taylor says. “You can easily overreact and follow suit with the wide swings. Or, you can be the even-tempered professional who suppresses the ‘sky is falling’ dynamic.”
By offering rational thinking — “That’s true, but we have until tomorrow to finish the project, and that’s more than enough time,” for example — you can demonstrate a more constructive approach. “Realize, too, that this yo-yo behavior is rarely directed solely at you.”
Your boss never discusses your future with you.
Are the discussions with your manager mostly transactional, with rare discussions about your future growth path? A good boss will discuss your prospects for long-term growth within the company — and not just during your performance evaluation, Taylor explains. “Savvy bosses check in with their team on a regular basis, rather than being reactive or waiting for an emergency, such as your brand-new job offer.”
It’s getting harder for you to wake up in the morning.
If you have a knot in your gut every time you have to face your boss, or if it’s taking you twice as long to drag yourself out of bed every morning, take notice. You may just have a terrible boss.
“The worst thing you can do is nothing,” says Taylor. “Better to first examine if this is a relationship worth salvaging with some diplomatic, high-road tactics.”
Your boss throws tantrums easily.
No one should be subjected to an out-of-control boss. In fact, leadership experts say the most effective managers are pretty boring, i.e. emotionally stable.
If you’ve noticed your boss getting out of control, “your next step might be to check out your favorite job board,” says Taylor.
But if your manager only has occasional outbursts, you may be able to work through the situation.
“Consider the acronym CALM:
Communicate — more frequently and in a venue that works for your boss
Anticipate problems before they worsen, and have solutions
Laugh — use levity to help your boss keep a rational perspective
Manage up — set limits with your bosses diplomatically, and let them see the benefits of your suggestions.
Timing is important with emotionally prone bosses. Don’t go into the lion’s den in your zeal for approvals, and certainly avoid early mornings, just before lunch, or after some bad company news.”
Your boss is self-centered.
Does you boss truly believe that the world revolves around them? “Some bosses immediately take the conversation to themselves; what happened to them, their latest golf score, a conversation they had … you get the picture,” Taylor says. “You can become more adept at getting to your agenda by saying something like, ‘That’s interesting. It reminds me of the project you gave me yesterday.’ And then don’t stop talking until you’ve safely equalized the conversation.”
Your work is never enough.
“It’s 8:30 am and your inbox is crashing the corporate server due to your boss’ excessive requests and inquiries,” says Taylor. “You could work 24/7 and still find your boss dissatisfied.”
Your manager must realize that you have limited time in a day, and can’t do all things (well) at once. If you don’t speak up, your boss will keep pushing.
Projects are suddenly whisked away.
“You’re given the plum project of the year on Friday, but on Monday, John is now somehow in charge,” Taylor says. “It feels like the rug was just pulled from under your cubicle.”
You have the right to get clarity, albeit tactfully, she explains. You want to avoid: “Why is John handling my project?!” Use a cool-down period to collect your thoughts, diffusing any signs of emotion.
Try something like this in a face-to-face meeting: “I want to do the best job I can here and was really looking forward to managing that project. What happened that changed that plan?”
“You may not be the only one on the receiving side of this form of mismanagement, so don’t assume you’re being singled out,” she says. “If you’re seeing a pattern of losing work assignments, ask to handle specific new projects and gauge the responses before making your next move.”
Your boss operates by irrational fear.
If your boss acts as if the world is coming to an end, that spawns fear throughout the office and hurts your concentration. “Try to be a beacon of rationality by posing the ‘what ifs’ to your boss, and point out the positives of the situation with real facts,” Taylor says.