Content warning: This article contains a mention of attempted suicide and may be distressing to some readers.
Anyone who’s spent even a fraction of their life scrolling on LinkedIn will have, at some point, likely come across a post sharing some variation of the platitude: “People don’t quit bad jobs, they quit bad bosses.”
If pop culture’s depiction of said ‘bad boss’ is anything to go by, a toxic leader is one that is either ‘oddly amusing’ at best, or ‘undeniably awful’, at worst. Essentially, when they aren’t described as outrightly fireable abusers of power, they are framed as a comically hellish fodder for wine-time venting, à la Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. However, much like manipulation presents in our personal relationships — ‘toxic boss behaviour’ is rarely that obvious from the outset. In fact, it’s seemingly the very same manipulation tactics that we observe when we talk about dating, like love bombing and gaslighting, that some leaders utilise in an attempt to control their subordinates in the workplace.
Love bombing, in particular — a behavioural technique commonly used by narcissists that involves lavishing someone with excessive attention or affection in order to influence or manipulate them — could be considered one of the more insidious ways in which a toxic boss gradually reveals themselves. Why? According to Dr. Amanda Ferguson, an organisational psychologist, author and the host of the podcast Psych For Life with Dr. Amanda Ferguson, love bombing appears quite positive in the beginning. It’s designed to make the receiver feel ‘special’, often taking the form of: “frequent out-of-office coffees, favouritism, flattery and praise that’s out-of-proportion, and the sharing of inappropriate information about other staff”, among other things.
“It’s not normal behaviour and comes from either being deeply insecure or having a personality disorder — either way, for one’s own gain personally, professionally or both,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
For Cassandra*, 28, a former operations manager for an e-commerce start-up, the early days of working under her bosses were brimming with camaraderie, with her employers frequently referring to her as “family” and showering her with compliments — until the business began to scale.
“My bosses’ [manipulative] behaviour didn’t start straight away, perhaps as it was a very small team. However, as the company grew, the manipulative behaviour became more prominent,” she said.
“[Suddenly], whenever something went wrong or didn’t produce the results they expected, they would try to place the blame on a certain person or team. They would always say, 'if you make a mistake, own up to it’, but whenever they made a mistake, they wouldn’t practise what they preached.”
"The effects of a manipulative boss can extend well beyond the confines of the 9-to-5"
A few months on, Cassandra grew more confused after she found herself saddled with the responsibilities of multiple roles outside of her department, without so much as a conversation about her existing workload. She revealed that she was also told not to socialise with her colleagues due to her “title” and if she did “there would be consequences”, with her bosses often speaking negatively to her about both current and former staff members. Several months later, the cracks in the facade became undeniable when she unexpectedly needed to be rushed to hospital.
“I called my bosses right away and was in tears on the phone to them because I was scared, having no family in Sydney and no idea what to expect. They said they’d be there for me no matter what. After spending six hours in the emergency department, where I was heavily sedated on medication, they called to ask me to do work as they needed some documentation sorted by the end of the day. I hung up on them and resigned a week later,” she said.
It’s an experience echoed by Sonia*, a designer in her early 30s, who described her boss’ “love bombing and gaslighting” as “textbook”, beginning with heaped positivity and praise that, despite meeting her required output, eventually gave way to shaming and guilt-tripping.
“It started small and took years for me to realise what was actually happening. Initially, I would be praised and rewarded for doing a good job,” she said.
“Then [one day], I was told I wasn’t doing my job well, and that I had to work harder and longer, to the point I was told I was lucky to even have a job at all. I kept allowing it because sometimes I would still be praised, but mostly I was told I wasn’t good enough.”
The final straw came when Sonia’s fiancé attempted suicide and her boss “refused to sign off” on her annual leave so she could look after both his and her mental health, citing their reason as a “campaign launch” that “took priority over it”.
“I was left feeling ashamed and guilty, like I should be able to work at 100% while also dealing with my personal life… A few months later, I resigned with no job to go to,” she said.
Like Cassandra and Sonia, Rhiannon*, a 30-year-old public relations account manager, recounted a similar ‘retroactive blindsiding’ by a previous boss and senior manager, which led to “lost confidence” and an overwhelming desire to leave the industry altogether.
“I think my boss was always manipulative in my previous PR job. I just don’t think I saw it until I resigned. [Early on], she would always seem to have your back, no matter what it was, and if you needed help, she’d always be there,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
“The longer I stayed, though, the more toxic it became. She’d ask you why you did something a certain way and if it wasn’t what she wanted, she’d put you on blast, expecting you to know the answer even though there was no briefing or context.
“And it wasn’t just the boss who was manipulative. I had a senior account manager tell me, ‘You need to fix this, because we can’t have you crying every day’, after I was given all these projects [that would normally be shared] in one week, and expected to do them myself. They then also cut me off from speaking to my own clients, even though I was their main point of contact.”
Eventually, Rhiannon worked up the nerve to quit without a new job in hand, only to find her boss gaslighting her during her resignation.
“She actually said, ‘Maybe you’re just not cut out for PR’. I know this was a tactic to discourage me and my future. Keep in mind, I’d been in PR and getting promoted for about four years before this role, and this was the point where I actually lost confidence and didn’t want to go back to the industry,” she said.
Although the manipulative tactics are often the same as those found in friendships and romantic relationships, unlike personal relationships where you are on equal footing with the other person, the hierarchy of the workplace can make manipulative behaviour harder to detect in a boss or senior, especially in real-time.
"The best way to span out if you’ve got a potentially toxic boss or manager on your hands is to ask a lot of questions to see if their values align with your values."
“Power structures add an extra layer of complexity. Presumably, we are there because we want or need the job,” Dr. Ferguson said.
“If it’s a new boss, we can be caught up in love bombing before we realise what’s happening. We all want to get on with our boss and to be liked, approved of — even admired — by them. It’s a natural wish for feedback that we’re doing a good job and to feel secure in our position.”
There’s research to suggest that we even struggle to identify workplace manipulation when it comes to co-workers on the same level, let alone those senior to us. According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this is because when it comes to the workplace, we all take part in some degree of ‘impression management’ — a conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person — and it can be as minor as faking laughter at a co-worker’s bad joke to avoid awkwardness.
Conflating ‘manipulation’ with ‘influence’ is another reason why deciphering toxic behaviour goes one step further when it comes to bosses, per Ruchi Sinha, an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the University of South Australia. In a 2022 article for Harvard Business Review, titled “Are You Being Influenced Or Manipulated?”, Sinha explained that there is a “thin line” separating “influence” (neutral) and “manipulation” (negative), both in the workplace and the world at large.
“The word ‘influence’ is a neutral term indicating a person’s capacity to have an effect on another person. Influence is what can move or sway someone to a desired action,” she wrote.
“You can influence others for good causes, such as influencing your family and friends to adopt fairness, justice, and honesty by displaying those behaviours yourself. Similarly, the way your boss gives credit where it’s due may influence you to treat your team members with the same respect. Notice that there is a freedom of choice involved here.”
On the other hand, she described manipulation as involving “emotional and psychological tactics to change or alter someone’s perception or behaviour in an underhanded, deceptive or even abusive way”, and that typically, “people do not know they are being manipulated because it is done in a way that conceals the manipulator’s intention.”
Unfortunately, the effects of a manipulative boss can extend well beyond the confines of the 9-to-5. As the average person in western society spends about one-third of their life at work (around 90,000 hours, not including overtime, FYI), the impact on your self-esteem and mental health could arguably be as significant as that of any destructive romantic or platonic relationship, with one study finding that a toxic workplace triples your risk of depression.
If you're not sure whether you are dealing with a manipulative supervisor, it’s worth first speaking to a mentor figure you trust for an objective perspective on the scenario and your next steps. Realised you do have a toxic boss on your hands? If resigning isn’t an immediate option, there are things you can do to minimise your susceptibility to manipulation in the interim and future, beginning with setting some limits.
“Establish and maintain boundaries,” Dr. Ferguson advised.
“A mantra like ‘it’s work, not personal’ and ‘I’m here to do a job’ as we walk into the office or go online can really help with this all-important mindset. Job security is being employable, and even if you can’t leave immediately, get support and plan ahead. This also helps with managing the job as it prevents complacency and being lulled into a false sense of security if you catch yourself having been caught up in a love bomb.”
On dealing with narcissistic bosses in particular, Dr. Ferguson said the best thing you can do is try to avoid “threatening their territory”, instead approach them with “light and breezy” tones and an “it’s all good” demeanour to avoid giving them the reaction they seek.
“Come up with standard responses in advance and practice rolling them out. These are phrases that mean nothing (other than to yourself) that don’t seem to disagree with the narcissist, such as: ‘Oh, how about that?’ or ‘That may be true… and’. These are to disarm and stop the narcissist in their tracks. Then, change the subject quickly to what you want to focus on, or back to them and what they care about. This can end up being quite a healthy discussion or debate when managed well,” she explained.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with the situation. Remember that it’s both okay, and understandable, and that it will take time.
“Everyone copes differently, and some are more resilient to narcissism than others. It depends on how toxic this person is to you,” Dr. Ferguson added. “Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you learn this new life skill that will help you for the rest of your life. Seeing it this way helps us to avoid feeling like victims.”
And if you’ve just escaped a toxic boss only to develop a fear of repeating the same scenario in your next role, while no method is fool-proof, Sydney-based career coach and recruiter Amie Duignan at A.D Connects emphasised that you can and should use the job interview process to help determine whether your potential next manager and job would be a better fit for you — once you’ve mapped out what you really want and need in both.
“The best way to figure out if you’ve got a potentially toxic boss or manager on your hands is to ask a lot of questions to see if their values align with your values. The interview is as much an interview for you as it is for them,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
“Ask them outright, ‘What is your management style?’ or ‘What’s the culture like? How does everyone work?’. Check to see if there’s a really high staff turnover — a big red flag. You can see how long people have been in their roles on LinkedIn, and also if people have actually moved up in the company.”
Don’t be afraid to ask them the same sorts of tough situational interview questions that prospective employees typically have to answer — and keep an eye on their body language as they respond, Duignan advised.
“Ask them [similar questions] back, like ‘How did you deal with a conflict?’ or ‘If a subordinate made a mistake, how would you deal with that and what steps would you take?’. Look out for if they are really vague or just kind of brush over the questions,” she said.
“Pay attention to their body language and tone — simple things like, do they look you in the eye? Observe what happens if you stumble on a word. Are they nice about it? That also gives you really good insight into how supportive they would be on the job. Trust your gut feeling.”
*Names have been changed for privacy. Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
If you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression and are in need of crisis support, please see your healthcare professional or contact Lifeline (131 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) for help. For immediate assistance, please call 000.