5 signs you have a toxic boss (and how to survive)

First up, let us be clear: your boss giving you negative feedback or refusing your payrise doesn’t automatically make them toxic. Truth is, sometimes we a) could improve in some areas, and b) don’t actually deserve more money right now. So, don’t come at us with your self-entitled woes until you’ve taken a long, hard look in the mirror. Oui?

That said, some bosses are real a***holes. While we may jest, that’s because otherwise we’ll cry (and we’re talking proper, ugly crying)... Because a truly bad boss can wreck your confidence, threaten your happiness, and shake your grip on reality. Their behaviour is toxic, and we’re so not here for it.

Here at Lightning, we actually give a sh*t. We want our candidates to find a role where you thrive, and we want our clients to be great bosses with happy, successful teams. So, this is for all of y’all: read on to learn the signs you have (or even are) a toxic boss – and how to come out the other side with your sanity intact.

Sign #1: They play favourites

Toxic bosses make workplace success a popularity contest. Who’s their favourite this week? Who’s getting invited to lunch – and who’s being left out of the office banter? 

There are so many things wrong with this. For one, actual workplace effectiveness usually doesn’t factor into favourites – if anything, wasting your energy trying to get your boss to ‘like’ you can be a distraction. Also, it creates unhealthy competition and encourages  backstabbing between colleagues. Plus, it exacerbates inequality, since most people tend to be drawn to others like them – so the boss’ favourites have a high chance of being homogenous clones.

Solution #1: Don’t engage

The thing about toxic bosses is they’re fickle – whoever’s on top only has further to fall. There’s really no winning this game, so focus on achieving tangible, role-related goals and try not to concern yourself with the playground antics of an overgrown child. Sure, build relationships and make friends at work, but only when it’s a two-way street. And don’t buy into the myth that being the boss’ fave is necessary for being great at your job.

Sign #2: They give passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) feedback

No one likes negative feedback, but the truth is none of us are perfect – and it’s the job of your boss to help you develop and improve so you can grow in your role and career. Saying that, there’s a right way and a wrong way to constructively criticise. 

Author of ‘Radical Candor’ Kim Scott argues good feedback happens when someone shows they “care personally” while “challenging directly” – in short, it’s real talk that comes from a place of love (which is what we at Lightning try our best to dole out). 

Failure to tick both boxes leads to “obnoxious aggression” – “praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism and feedback that isn’t delivered kindly”; “ruinous empathy” – “praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good, or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear”, or even silence; or “manipulative insincerity” – “praise that is insincere, flattery to a person’s face and harsh criticism behind their back.” 

Bad feedback can take the form of publicly bashing your performance (and maybe even shouting or raising their voice), making thinly veiled jokes at your expense, or only telling other people about your failings so that you have to hear it second-hand. As well as undermining your position and crumbling your confidence, these types of feedback do nothing to help you develop.

Solution #2: Manage upwards

While it shouldn’t be on you to teach your boss how to behave, sometimes a little upward-management is necessary. The first tip for getting better feedback is being open to it. Remember: bosses are humans, too – if they’re expecting a bad attitude when they give feedback, delivering it bluntly might be a means of defence. Proving you can handle constructive criticism (and even asking for it) might relax them and, in turn, encourage them to be nicer about it.

If you find being the butt of your boss’ jokes hurtful, it’s a good idea to let them know. Ask to chat in private and explain how their comments make you feel. There’s a chance they don’t realise what they’re doing or the impact it's having, so try not to point fingers. Instead, give them concrete examples of when you feel their jokes have crossed the line and invite them to address any grievances with you directly (and privately) – keeping in mind the advice above about being open to feedback.

We also highly recommend giving ‘Radical Candor’ a read… Maybe even leave it laying about on your desk to encourage your boss to do the same.

Sign #3: They take all the credit (and none of the blame)

Great bosses give shout-outs to the team members who helped make a project happen and shoulder the blame (in public, at least) when sh*t hits the fan. For toxic bosses, the reverse is true: they publicly call out people who f***ed up and never name names when congrats are in order. If they’re a proper pillock, they might actively take credit for others’ work.

This creates a working culture where people are afraid to make mistakes, which can have two effects: either no one tries anything new because they don’t want to be publicly shamed if it doesn’t work out – especially when there’s no chance of being recognised if it does – destroying any chance of innovation. Or people mimic the boss’ behaviour, passing off others’ work as their own and looking for someone to blame when they get things wrong – which is a death knell for ownership and accountability.

Solution #3: Find other advocates

Chances are, your toxic boss hasn’t invited you to meetings where they’re passing off your work as their own. But if you’re smart, you can make others aware of your involvement and earn yourself a seat at the table. Strike up a conversation about a project with another senior manager while the kettle boils, or offer to help another team with a piece of work that allows you to demonstrate your expertise.

If you do mess up, own it – ideally coming clean to relevant (trustworthy) people before your boss can unceremoniously out you. Showing honesty and willingness to make things right is guaranteed to earn you points with the rest of your team.

Sign #4: They gaslight you

Do you ever question your memory because it turns out your boss’ expectations are totally different to what you thought they wanted? Do you find your pride at having achieved something being squashed when your boss makes out like it’s no big deal, or even refuses to acknowledge it?

According to VeryWellMind, “Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. It is a covert type of emotional abuse in which the bully or abuser misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality.” Results include confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and – possibly most dangerously – dependency on the perpetrator.

Solution #4: Break the cycle

One of the biggest issues with gaslighting at work is that it can make you feel as though you’re bad at your job and, therefore, not fit to work anywhere else – it can even make you feel grateful that you have a job at all, considering your perceived (constructed) uselessness. 

We’re here to tell you that isn’t true. You are worthy. We’d put money on the fact you have a whole host of transferable skills and insight that would make you an asset to another business. If you don’t believe us, book a free Lightning Lounge session so we can help you write your CV, figure out a sensible next step, and give you the confidence-boosting pep talk you need.  

If you want to stay where you are, start putting things in writing. If you get verbal instructions from your boss, follow up with an email outlining what you’ve discussed and asking them to confirm what’s been agreed – then refer back to this if they question you. Record your achievements to make them feel real – whether it’s on a Slack group, or by updating your CV. (And if you hear about the achievement of a teammate who’s suffering at the whims of the same boss, shout about it on their behalf.)

Sign #5: They don’t care about your wellbeing

Do you find yourself consistently working long hours, with no help or end in sight? Does your boss have unreasonable expectations for what you (and maybe your team) can achieve, creating feelings of overwhelm and stress? Is it normal for your boss to contact you out of hours and expect an immediate response?

A high, unrelenting workload and little opportunity to switch off and rest causes exhaustion and anxiety – a fast road to burnout. And that, friends, is not a destination you want to visit.

Solution #5: Set boundaries (or get TF out)

The first step if your wellbeing is suffering because of work is to talk to your boss – calmly, logically, and with concrete examples that demonstrate the challenges you’re facing and how it’s negatively impacting your wellbeing. There’s a chance they genuinely don’t realise the stress you’re under (or are too stressed themselves to see it), so this will give them an opportunity to offer the support you need.

Back up this chat in your day-to-day. Rather than working late or on the weekends and setting an unrealistic precedent for how much you can achieve, make a point of leaving (at least roughly) on time. When you’re given new work on top of an ever-increasing pile, ask your boss to confirm the priority of everything you have on your plate – lead with the positive by explaining what you can achieve by the allotted deadlines (without breaking your back or your brain), then suggest a new timeframe for the rest. If your boss asks things of you out of hours, reply suggesting an in-hours time to talk about it.


If you’ve tried all this and your boss’ behaviour is still toxic AF, we can’t say it loud enough: get out. The longer you stay, the more you’ll suffer – and the impact could reach deeper than you realise. Check out our current jobs or get in touch to find out how we can help you escape.

In the meantime, here's our very own Jack and Sarah with their top tips for candidates right now:

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Thea Bardot

19th March

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