December 8, 2022

The Story of a Toxic Boss

Work relationships are critical to your professional success and your mental wellbeing. But what happens when you work with a toxic person?

Every month, I have several information calls with clients who are looking for help making sense of a work relationship. The story usually goes something like this:

When I first started my job, my boss/colleague treated me like I was the person they had been waiting for. She said my ideas and contributions were invaluable to the company. I was invited to important meetings and introduced to the leaders of the company. I was told that my perspective as a gay cis-man was greatly needed by the team.

Then, one day, I was suddenly an outcast. In meetings, my boss would ignore my ideas or tell me they were stupid in front of the entire team. I would find out about important meetings after they happened. When I joined a Zoom meeting, the room would get really quiet.

I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out what I am doing wrong. I am meeting my goals and getting great feedback from people outside of my team. I even asked my boss directly and was told I was being too sensitive. Yesterday, I received a notice that I have to meet with my boss to develop a performance improvement plan. I feel discouraged, angry and my confidence has taken a big hit.

Have You Experienced Relational Trauma?

This behavior that this person experienced is a form of professional relational abuse. Specifically, he was caught in an Idealization-Devalue-Discard (IDD) Cycle of a toxic person (or team).

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, there are toxic people in the world, including in the workplace. Working with a toxic personality can lead to relational trauma, a form of trauma that is pervasive, insidious and under-recognized, especially in professional settings.

People who experience relational trauma at work can have physical and mental health challenges, loss of confidence, apathy towards or stalling in their career, and an inability to overcome small interpersonal challenges, etc.

Sadly and frustratingly, members of the LGBTQ+ community are often targets of toxic behavior, which can indirectly and directly damage their careers.

Because relational trauma can be insidious and under-recognized, you may feel like you can’t quite put your finger on what you are doing wrong or what is going wrong. This is common.

Are You in a Toxic Relationship at Work?

Here are several questions you can ask yourself if you suspect you may be dealing with a toxic person at work (from Ann Betz, BEabove Leadership, 2022)

  • In the beginning, did this person over-compliment you, put you on a pedestal, and/or treat you like you were the savior of the company, department or team?
  • Did this person show a great deal of curiosity about you at the very beginning, asking you a lot of personal questions about your life and feelings? Did their interest seem perhaps flattering, but also inappropriate?
  • Does this person keep important information/resources (including financial) from you that are critical to your role?
  • Does this person take credit for your accomplishments, especially in front of other people?
  • Does this person inappropriately blame you for things that were not your fault (or not entirely your fault)?
  • Does this person “throw you under the bus” in meetings by asking you questions they know you are not prepared for, shifting blame, or speaking for you (or to you) in inappropriate ways?
  • Does this person have difficulty controlling their anger in the workplace?

It can be difficult to navigate a relationship with a toxic colleague. The impact of the experience can stay with you for years, even for your entire career, if you don’t get help processing what happened. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed that you “put” yourself in a toxic situation and that it is your fault. That is normal but it’s not your fault and there probably isn’t anything you could have done differently. Get help from a coach or a therapist to help you process what happened and come out the other side stronger and ready to claim your seat at the table.



In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate (book)

What Gaslighting Does in Exploiting Trust, Therapy Can Repair, by Dr Ramani Durvasula (essay)

DoctorRamani YouTube Channel

Surviving Narcissism: down-home wisdom from a kind and well-informed therapist and one of his patients who went through her own abusive relationship.

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