Surviving a negative, controlling, toxic boss

QUESTION: My boss is negative, controlling and judgmental. He criticizes everything I do, which makes working for him feel like getting small knife cuts all day long. After his wife divorced him, he became increasingly difficult to work for. He makes caustic comments about “evil women” and seems to see me as a member of an enemy race. I find his behavior especially toxic as I divorced a similarly negative, controlling man a decade ago.

I’d quit, except there aren’t that many jobs in Palmer that need someone with my skills or pay as much. To get a job that pays as well, I’d need to commute into Anchorage, but then I’d have to pay for gas and would lose two hours of my life to commute time. As it is, I don’t have enough time with my kids.

I’ve tried to find an employer that will allow me to work remotely. I’ve had no luck and go home exhausted every night. What do you suggest?

ANSWER: Redouble your efforts to find a job in Wasilla or Anchorage where you can work remotely for at least part of the week. You can’t keep working for him; he’ll destroy your self-esteem. Once that happens, you’ll lose the confidence you need to interview well and land a new job. Worse, you won’t be able to show up as a strong, positive, centered mom for your kids.

Assuming you remain working for him, however, try the following:

Don’t make his problem yours.

Don’t take his comments personally or allow his comments about your performance define how you see yourself. Each time he belittles you, remind yourself what you’re doing well in your job and in handling the challenges your boss presents.


Don’t sink to his level. Rise above his treatment by taking his finger off your buttons and responding with calm grace under pressure.

Stand your ground mentally and emotionally.

Your self-worth comes from within. This means toxic bosses can’t steal it unless you give them that power. If you catch yourself responding to his unfair criticism with your own negative self-talk, remember that your boss’s words say much about him and nothing about you.

Create solutions.

Play by your own rules and not your boss’s toxic game. Where you focus your attention on your toxic boss, you prolong the negative emotions and stress he creates. Don’t expect to change him; he’ll defeat your efforts. Instead, focus on solutions. Take every action you can that gives you back power and control, including looking for another job.

For example, if you work for a passive-aggressive boss who covertly attacks, remember he fears directness. When he starts a snarky rant, ask, “What would you have me do differently?” By doing so you take control of the interaction, and he has to answer you. As another example, if you work for an overcontrolling boss, copy him on emails and flood him with regular updates. Overperform until he backs off. If he looks at the clock when you arrive at work and leave for the day, don’t fret. Simply arrive and leave on time.

Detox through support.

Toxic people take a toll. Strengthen yourself by developing and using allies who can provide you with new perspectives and insight. Even if you simply explain what’s happening to a friend, she may suggest a new way to handle your boss. If nothing else, you’ll feel better when you know others are rooting for you.

Outgun him.

While toxic bosses may rule their organizations or departments, they don’t rule the world. If your boss regularly makes derogatory comments about “evil” women, he subjects you to a hostile environment based on your sex. Record him. Then, take your recording to the Alaska State Human Rights Commission and ask them if his words and actions constitute illegal discrimination.

Finally, you may need to tell your boss, “This far and no further.” You deserve better.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully,” and Curry is president of Communication Works Inc. Send questions to her at or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.