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How to Deal with a Toxic Leader

Someone holds up a mask of an angry face.

Leadership is a critical part of your work life, and when it's good, it can have an incredibly positive impact on your career as your entire professional trajectory. But is poor leadership always a signal to leave? Not necessarily.

The good news is that poor leadership at a nonprofit can be short-lived and is occasionally just the result of some organizational growing pains. If you're currently dealing with a toxic leader, here are a few tips for surviving this period in your organization’s growth.

The two types of toxic bosses

A study from the Binghamton University identified two types of toxic bosses. Your coping method will depend on which one you're dealing with.

  • Dark bosses can be toxic. They intend to hurt the organization and employees out of a sense of pleasure or a deep-seated hurt of their own. They’re destructive and cause suffering in order to elevate their own standing.
  • Dysfunctional bosses don’t mean any harm; unfortunately, they’re just not great at being a boss. While they may have good intentions for the organization, they put other things above leadership and show little interest in getting better.

Each type has degrees of severity, and some traits may overlap. However, identifying the basic type of toxic leadership can help you cope.

The dark boss

There are two good methods for dealing with a dark boss.

  • Address your fears: Toxic people thrive on exploiting the fears of others. Don’t think you’re good at spreadsheets? They’ll pick your spreadsheets apart. Don’t feel confident in your project management skills? They’ll pick that apart, too. Wherever you feel insecure, a toxic boss will pick up on those things and use them against you. Real leadership can guide you through flaws and help you grow while toxic leadership may prey on your insecurities.
  • Reframe your story: When a toxic person wants to win, they often create a narrative that paints other people in a negative light. Gaslighting is common and gossiping is the norm. To combat this situation, you should keep your head in the real story. If your boss is always yelling, reframe the story so that your boss is a hurt person instead of a jerk. If your boss continually criticizes you, take it as an opportunity to grow.

Reframing your story keeps you in control of what’s happening. You know the criticism isn’t valid, but since you can’t do anything about the situation right now, try reframing the situation to something positive.

This strategy is all about mindset. And for more on mindset, here is an excellent resource from

The dysfunctional boss

The dysfunctional boss doesn’t want to hurt you, so methods for coping are a little different.

  • Rest. This strategy could be applied to either type of boss. Mitigating issues can take a toll on your energy levels, so it’s crucial that you take the proper time to rest. When your boss forgets to file the quarterly reports, and you have to stay up all night getting things together for a shareholders meeting, feeling well-rested will get you through. When your boss refuses to make a decision about a vital part of the newest grant, and you have to go back and forth, self-care can keep you level-headed. Here are some excellent tips for staying healthy through a stressful job.
  • Remind yourself of the mission. You work with this organization for a reason, so do your best to not let temporary bad leadership interfere with your love of your organization's mission. This is your saving grace for the 15th time your boss forgets to contact community leaders on your advisory board. It can be hard to see the bigger picture when dealing with this type of boss, but a constant reminder of your bigger picture puts things back into perspective.

If you need some tips for focusing on the bigger picture, here are some tips for life-hacking your perspective.

When is enough enough?

These tips are for dealing with a temporary situation. Long-term toxic bosses can rob you of your quality of life. If you suspect that your organization has no intention of correcting course, it may be time for you to move on.

This can be a time of grieving, so make sure you care for your health and reach out to your support system. Leaving a job is a big decision, so be kind to yourself.

Exploring temporary poor leadership can lead to some personal breakthroughs. You may find your own hidden talents or the situation could serve to show you how strong you really are. You may find a love of some new hobbies by having to cope with work, or you may even discover that your coworkers are some of your closest friends.

Above all, this could remind you how much you love your organization’s mission. We hope things resolve quickly!

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About the Author | Elizabeth Wallace is a Nashville-based freelance writer specializing in expertise-building, pillar blog posts and white papers. She’s also a 13 year veteran of the ESL/adult language acquisition field.

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