This Is the Price You'll Pay for Working for a Toxic Boss

New research shows how much your boss affects your well-being.

Posted Apr 11, 2017

Maneerat Nattakorn/Shutterstock
Source: Maneerat Nattakorn/Shutterstock

While a great leader will challenge you to become your best, a toxic boss will drain your mental strength.

As a therapist, I've had many clients enter my office saying things like, "My boss is a bully. I might have to quit," and, "I used to like my job. But under new leadership, it's intolerable. I'm not sure how much longer I can do this."

In a rural area, it's common for a therapist to see several people working for the same boss. Of course, none know their co-workers are also in treatment, struggling to deal with the tyrant they share for a boss.

It's clear that working for a toxic boss can take a serious toll on your well-being, and new research shows just how damaging it can be.

What Makes A Boss Toxic

An inept leader isn't necessarily toxic. Some people simply lack leadership skills like communication and organization. Toxic leaders, however, proactively harm others. They use fear and intimidation to maintain control. They embarrass workers and threaten them as a way to gain compliance. Toxic bosses frequently exhibit psychopathic and narcissistic traits: They lack empathy for others, and they abuse their power.

The Damage Toxic Bosses Can Cause

Researchers at the University of Manchester's Business School examined how employees are affected by toxic bosses. They studied 1,200 participants from a variety of industries in several different countries and, not surprisingly, found that employees with a toxic boss experienced lower rates of job satisfaction.

But the researchers also found that employees' misery spilled over into their personal lives, too: Working for a toxic boss wreaked havoc on their mental health. And employees working for a narcissistic or psychopathic boss were more likely to experience clinical depression.

Toxic Bosses Damage a Company's Culture

The same study also found that a toxic leader's behavior spreads like wildfire in a workplace. Under toxic leadership, employees are more likely to criticize each other, and they're more inclined to take credit for other people's work. They also behave more aggressively toward one another.

Other studies have found similar results. A 2016 study conducted by the University of Michigan found that rude behavior, like sarcasm and put-downs, leads to mental fatigue. Consequently, workers had less self-control, which increased the chances they'd be rude toward others.

Workplace incivility isn't just bad for morale — it hurts a company's bottom line. Researchers estimate that disrespectful behavior costs companies $14,000 per employee due to lost productivity.

Why Companies Should Examine How Leadership Success Is Measured

Unfortunately, many organizations measure a leader's success based only on short-term performance. But toxic bosses are often able to create short-term changes that look like improvements.

Threats and intimidation may lead employees to work longer hours and become more productive — initially. But, as a boss's toxic behavior continues, employees lose motivation and productivity declines. Eventually, employees are at a higher risk for burnout. And that stress will take a toll on their well-being and performance.

It's important for organizations to look at the bigger picture when examining the success of a leader. A toxic boss can have a ripple effect that lasts for years.

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