How many times do you think that sentence has been uttered in the course of human history?
According to a 2018 survey, as many as three out of four people have or have recently had a bad boss.
I’ve witnessed many bad bosses over the course of my career. Fortunately, I’ve only had to work for one directly, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. His bad bossery wasn’t really an issue of competency. He was rather bright, skilled, and knowledgeable. He was, however, an extreme micromanager. We called him ‘Nano’(nano-manager) when he wasn’t around. That in and of itself was something I could deal with. I could even deal with him doing a follow-up walk-over on the email he sent me 30 seconds prior.
His problem was his emotions. He wasn’t up and down, just down. It was usually some degree of cranky or belligerent. It was like he was stuck in this perpetual midlife crisis. He would flip out over some trivial detail and act irrationally.
You wonder how people like this seem to last in companies. But they do—and knowing how to spot a bad boss before it’s too late will bring you a lot more happiness at work.
So what are the other signs of a bad boss? Here are four red flags to watch out for:
1. They have an impenetrable aura of perfection
Here’s one sign of a bad manager to watch out for: They can’t admit failure or own up to their mistakes.
A manager who can’t take responsibility for their actions is likely to throw their staff under the bus. They may show you support in person, but when they talk to their boss, they put the blame for mistakes on everyone but themselves (and may even rub salt in the wound by taking credit for your hard work).
On the flip side, one sign of a good boss is their ability to ask for help when they need it, and make an objective assessment when things go wrong. It speaks to a broad and sober consideration for one’s capacity and that of their team. As a result, they’re more likely to find solutions and make improvements, rather than run from problems and point fingers.
At my old office, we had what we called the cult of, “It’s no big deal.”
A senior manager would ask another manager, “Can you do ___?”
That manager would say, “Yeah! It’s no big deal!”
“Can you part the ocean?”
“Yeah, it’s no big deal! My team will jump right on that.”
Managers said yes to things they had no knowledge of, or capacity to deliver on. There is an art to pushing back and knowing your team’s limits.
I eventually pulled a manager aside after a meeting and was on the brink of shaking him, “C’mon! Stop pretending everything is no big deal! That request was a huge deal!”
2. The cherry-picking boss
One of the most common signs of a bad boss involves their inability to give you the feedback you need to grow in your role.
This type of bad boss will hyper-focus on small mistakes, while completely failing to give constructive or positive feedback in equal measure.
For example, let’s say you create an immaculate 50-page report, filled with new and actionable data. You’re proud of your work, and wait anxiously to hear your manager’s thoughts on it.
But when your boss calls you into their office, they don’t look pleased or impressed—they look pissed. Turns out you missed a period on page 48. They spend the next 20 minutes berating you about your attention to detail.
You stay two hours late for four days in a row. Then, on Friday, when you leave five minutes early, that manager questions your professionalism.
This borderline-irrational behavior isn’t uncommon. There was a toxic boss in our sister department who was a known tyrant. I was offered a position working over there for more money but declined. It’s better to heed the signs of a bad manager and make a little bit less money to avoid working in hell.
3. The terrifying boss
I supported several project management teams at my last construction company. This gave me a front-row seat to a number of managers during our monthly meetings. One of the managers, we’ll call him “Rick,” was the worst manager I have ever seen. He embodied the toxic boss persona of “High Performing Jerk.”
He yelled at his team. He made unbelievably crude jokes during meetings. For example, we were in a glass meeting room, with just men on Rick’s team, which was usually when he was most profane. A woman, Courtney, walked by. A coworker said, quietly, “Oh, it looks like Courtney is pregnant again!”
Rick replied, “Yeah and if she was with me, she’d stay pregnant.”
It was just another day with him.
Why did the company tolerate such a boorish man? He was an expert in construction. He made the company a lot of money. So he ruled with an iron fist and got away with far more than he ever should have. Even if you’d never met him, you might have known he was a bad boss. Why? Because his team was terrified of him. They were scared to ask him any questions, and in his presence, they seemed to quake, perhaps rightfully so.
It’s a good lesson if you’re managing managers—watch how their subordinates act around them. If everyone runs for cover when the boss walks into the room, it’s a big flashing sign of a toxic boss.
4. They aren’t experts at their craft
In the military, there is an old adage: “A soldier who doesn’t want to be a general isn’t a good soldier.”
It speaks to the necessity of a person’s goals and passion. But in military circles, it carries another deeper meaning: You will never have a general who wasn’t first a grunt, working his way up, learning and being near the core aspects of military service.
In the business sector, the same model often applies. But you still end up dealing with managers who don’t really understand the work their team puts into developing a product or service.
I used to manage a number of large vendors for my company and was put off by a Verizon rep who seemed to defer on every question I asked him. He was a master delegator and didn’t really understand, on a deep level, the products he was selling. It would be the equivalent of a general who had never fired a weapon.
A good manager should be passionate about what their company is doing. They should be selling from the front, and not completely beholden to the knowledge of those around them.
Of course, no one can be an expert on all things—that’s why good managers know how to divide up work and tap into their teams’ specific talents. But if they don’t have the passion and knowledge to match that of the rest of their staff, you’re definitely walking into toxic boss territory.
Good managers should be evangelists for their products and their people. There’s no future where a manager can be everyone’s best friend. But there is a fine line between upholding a standard for performance and being toxic. Know which side of the line you stand on.
What to do when you find yourself saying, “I hate my boss.”
If any of the signs of a bad manager seemed familiar to you, I urge you to take action. Working under a toxic boss can have a detrimental impact on your mental health and overall well-being.
So what do you do if you can’t stop saying, “I hate my boss?” There are a few paths you can take, depending on your current situation.
Option 1: Speak with upper management
Unless your boss is the founder or CEO of the company, your best option for dealing with a toxic manager may be to go over their head. Your boss likely has their own boss they report to, and this person may be able to help. If your company has a Human Resources department, you can also bring up your concerns with them.
Either way, it’s best to raise the issues when you’re feeling calm and prepared. Come to the meeting with a list of examples that illustrate the issues you’re having with your boss, and think of a few ways you think things could improve. Try to remain objective when running through the issues, and avoid letting bitterness or resentment creep into your words.
If your boss’s boss is good at what they do, or if your HR team genuinely cares about the staff, this could very well solve the problem once and for all. But beware—some toxic bosses will become hostile or resentful when confronted, and they may lash out at you for reporting them.
Option 2: Make an exit strategy
If the HR team is unwilling or unable to help, and no other managers can step in to solve the problem, then your best bet may be to cut ties and get out of the toxic situation altogether.
Yes, I’m talking about quitting your job. Of course, this option isn’t always viable for everyone—you may be dependent on your income, or the job you’re in now may feel like a prerequisite for building the career you want.
But it’s still not a bad idea to at least test the waters. You can update your LinkedIn on the sly, polish up your resume, and put out some feelers for what other jobs (under less toxic management) are available.
If this sounds like the path you want to take, here are some resources you should definitely check out:
Option 3: Confront the problem yourself
This option requires tact and courage, but if you have those, then it may be the fastest way to fix the problem.
If you feel you can deliver constructive feedback to your boss, and they will listen and be open to your perspective, then bringing up the issues with them directly can help them see the error of their ways and improve their management style.
This option will not work if you let your emotions get the best of you. If you’re feeling angry, frustrated, resentful, or outraged, your boss will most likely react with defensiveness, which will ruin your chances of actually improving the situation.
Consider having a third party in the room for the conversation, so that they can provide an objective perspective on the meeting. Focus on the issue and the result—don’t make it personal, and present a few ways you think the problem can be alleviated.
If you can manage all that, then there’s a good chance your office environment will become a lot less toxic.