Is your boss toxic — or just insecure?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Dissatisfied angry female executive scolding african employee for bad work at diverse group meeting, white woman boss reprimanding black subordinate for poor financial result at office team briefing
How can you tell if your boss’s problems stem from their insecurities — and is there anything you can do about it? Photo: Getty

Kids are often told that bullies act the way they do because they’re insecure. And while this might be true, it isn’t particularly comforting — and doesn’t make their actions any less hurtful. Unfortunately, the same can be said for adults.

Horrible bosses can be horrible for all sorts of reasons. They may be combative, lazy or passive aggressive, making life difficult for everyone who has to work with or for them. And there are many reasons they may behave badly, too — including feeling insecure about their abilities or experience.

One of the key problems with an insecure leader is unpredictability. Catch them on a good day, and they may well be friendly, supportive and capable, lulling you into a false sense of security. On a bad day, they may be argumentative, defensive and a downright nightmare to work for.

READ MORE: How an arrogant boss affects a whole company

But how can you tell if your boss’s problems stem from their insecurities — and is there anything you can do about it?

“The quick and easy signs are likely around disengaging with feedback, being reluctant to explain decisions, micromanaging an employee's work and being content with the status quo rather than looking to develop — at an individual, departmental or organisational level,” says Emma-Louise Rowe, a consultant psychologist at the Work Psychology Group.

“More broadly, an insecure leader might not foster an atmosphere of respect within their team,” she explains. “Respect for others’ differences, strengths and values is key to cohesion between team members, regardless of role or level. But an insecure manager may lack the confidence to appreciate the value of diversity of ideas and experiences, feeling instead that this undermines their own authority.”

Everyone struggles with their confidence from time-to-time, but a seriously insecure boss can have a hugely detrimental impact on an employee’s wellbeing. For one, their lack of confidence may manifest in belligerent or petty behaviour, especially if they feel challenged.

READ MORE: Why employees hate 'having a quick chat' with their boss

“Depending on the severity of the manager’s behaviour, there could well be a collective impact on mental health in the workplace,” says Rowe. “Insecurity at the top could manifest in workplace bickering, politicking and lack of organisational progress.”

And it’s also more difficult for a leader that struggles with insecurity to give credit to team members for their work, ideas and contribution, especially those they feel threatened or undermined by. If an employee’s efforts go unrecognised or unrewarded, it can affect their morale, job satisfaction and even their careers, if they struggle to cope with their manager’s behaviour.

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An insecure boss’ actions can have an impact on a company’s entire culture and not just individuals, which can be risky for business.

“They may also be less likely to encourage innovation,” Rowe says. “Being open to change and supportive of new ideas needs to go hand in hand with encouraging sensible risk-taking. Sometimes this will pay off and sometimes it won’t. But an insecure manager might struggle with enabling their team to make mistakes without being penalised.”

Unfortunately, quitting your job because of a bad boss isn’t always an option — as tempting as it can be. So what can you do about it?

“The first thing is to bear in mind that your manager’s insecurity is about them and not you. And you’re probably doing a great job,” Rowe says. “You could also seek alternative methods of support within your role such as coworkers or other seniors who can provide a positive impact to your work and your working environment.”

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It’s also helpful to talk to family and friends about problems at work, so you can leave your frustrations at the office. It might be tempting to vent about your boss to a colleague, but you never know if this will come back to haunt you later on.

According to Rowe, increasing your interactions with your manager may also help, if you feel comfortable enough to do so. “This gives you a good chance to make sure you’re clear about what they want from you and enables you to be transparent about what you’re doing and how,” she adds.

And finally, you could consider a more formal conversation with your manager to tackle the issues directly. However, it’s essential to make sure you plan out the things you want to raise and take along relevant examples to keep the conversation specific. Bear in mind, though, challenging your manager may trigger their insecurities further.

“While a direct conversation and increasing dialogue with the manager can be helpful, it’s worth being mindful that these will not necessarily be comfortable or well received interactions,” Rowe says. “So, you would need to consider whether you are in the right headspace for those.”