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5 ways to deal with a toxic supervisor at work

A reality of navigating adulting unfortunately not taught in school.

Matthaeus Choo
Matthaeus Choo

Published: 13 October 2021, 12:11 PM

A toxic supervisor can be hell on earth, especially when we tend to spend far more time at work than anywhere else. 

They take many forms — so much so that there are countless listicles on the internet solely on signs to spot one. But the core of what makes a supervisor toxic is how their behaviour causes unnecessary stress at the workplace and how they cross the line between the professional and personal. 

In better times, one of the most effective ways to deal with a toxic supervisor was to leave the job. The pandemic has made that decision even more difficult, with seemingly no other alternative than to tough it out. 

In this non-exhaustive list, here are five pointers to keep in mind that hopefully will help in dealing with a toxic supervisor at work.

1. Be compassionate

It’s not a matter of killing them with kindness either. Everybody is flawed. The truth is rarely is anyone prepared to take on supervisory roles.

Even after decades into their role, supervisors may not even be aware of how destructive their behaviour is. 

Find an appropriate time to have a word with your supervisor about how their actions, words, or management methods have affected you or your team. Be courteous because respect remains a two-way street even if the other party fails to extend the same form of compassion initially. 

2. Keep receipts

Both for better and for worse, the court of public opinion has become the key arbiter when it comes to settling disputes. Most hold a combative stance against working life and assume the worst out of supervisors and bosses. 

Posting receipts on supervisors’ troubling behaviour on the Internet has become the go-to nuclear option when it comes to dealing with toxicity. However, we still have to remember to be compassionate. 

Receipts give off the impression of capturing the full story; the full context hardly matters to the court of public opinion. The professional decision would be to present the evidence to the company’s HR department or another superior — although these options may not be feasible or even available depending on the job. 

Regardless, even if it may make you seem paranoid and untrusting amongst colleagues and supervisors, keeping a paper and digital trail will be an important form of check and balance to keep everyone honest and in line with their behaviour.

Victims can report cases of workplace harassment to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). PHOTO CREDIT: TAFEP

3. Set limits

There tend to be generational divides between workers and their supervisors. With that comes different expectations and understandings of what professional behaviour entails. 

There are also norms within industries, such as being available on weekends or attending to messages after hours, that may be tolerated for some, but are outright unacceptable for others. Still, there are lines that definitely cannot be crossed, namely with racism, sexism and inappropriate behaviour.

Make your limits known to your supervisor both verbally and through your body language. If he or she acts out or double downs on their behaviour, follow the chain of command and escalate the matter to their superior. 

Everybody’s boundaries deserve to be respected and acknowledged.

4. Try to avoid taking things personally

Not all supervisors are whizzes when it comes to communication. Like everyone else, the personal and professional lives of supervisors can be blurred to a point where there are no longer any separations; it’s what tends to happen with overworking and burnout. 

As such, their forms of communication can easily slide to unprofessionalism. In no way is this a valid reason for them to act out and hurl hurtful comments, but it is an avenue towards understanding their behaviour.

Similar to the previous points, it is essential to make known your limits and about their toxic behaviour. However, on our part and as preposterous as it sounds, as long as their behaviour doesn’t cross egregious lines, it is best not to take the toxic supervisor’s comments personally. Work is work, and it should never diminish your self-worth. 

Likewise, avoid sharing personal issues or matters with supervisors unless absolutely necessary. Toxic supervisors, especially when their personal and professional lives are essentially the same, tend to weaponise these matters and turn them into ammunition for work criticism.

5. Think of a proper exit plan if all else fails

This is definitely a privilege that not all have especially with the ongoing pandemic. Decisions to leave may be extremely difficult if there is a family to support and bills to pay. 

It is in these times where it is essential to plan an exit strategy and find another job before leaving. It is also in these macabre times where we should recognise that there is more to living than our careers — because our lives can always disappear in an instant.

If all methods of negotiation with the toxic supervisor lead to no worthwhile change, the stress and trauma from their behaviour will never be worth suffering through. 

Money can buy just about everything but it can never replace the stressful sleepless nights, time spent away from family and friends, and the sanity lost for those who refuse to change.


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