Work Relationships

The difference between a tough boss and a bad boss

difference between a bad boss and a tough boss
Written by Eric Titner

Those of us who have been in the work world for a while know all about the dreaded “difficult boss”—the boss who fills your thoughts with misery when you think about coming into work each day. The boss who somehow manages to make every work project and task more annoying and less enjoyable for everyone involved, and who’s skilled at chipping away at your confidence, self-esteem, and optimism with every encounter. Most of us have had the misfortune of having a difficult boss in our orbits and know just how unfortunate this reality can be.

In fact, having a difficult boss may actually be worse for you than you even realize. Forbes recently published an article that highlighted a recent study by the University of Manchester’s Business School that uncovered a wide range of negative effects from having a toxic boss. These include higher rates of depression and negativity, lower job satisfaction, worse job performance, and a more pessimistic professional outlook—and the ripple effects spill out of the office and all over employees’ personal lives in a variety of detrimental ways. Clearly, having a difficult boss is not an ingredient for a happy life.

That said, not all difficult bosses are created equally. In fact, a clear distinction should be made between the two types of difficult bosses—tough bosses and bad bosses. The short- and long-term effects they can have on you can be completely different, so it pays to know the difference. Let’s take a closer look at each of these two breeds of boss and see what makes each type tick.

How to handle bad bosses

Most of us know a flat-out bad boss when we see them, and the truth is that beyond a paycheck and perhaps bolstering our resumes, there’s very little upside to working with them. They’re constantly and consistently working to bring out the very worst in us and drain us of every last drop of energy and enthusiasm. Maybe it’s out of greed and selfishness for their own needs, with no regard for ours, or maybe they’re just simply terrible at being people and get some satisfaction from seeing us unhappy and squirming.

Regardless of their motives, the end result of working with a bad boss is often the same—you spend way to much time trying to make them happy, which is often an elusive and unattainable goal, and you’re left miserable in the process. You often get nothing in return from the interaction and, even worse, it affects your entire life negatively. Like in any toxic relationship, you often come out of the bad boss experience shell-shocked and worse for wear, and it can take a while to shake off the ill effects.

If this sounds like your situation, after diagnosing the problem you should see if there are any steps you can take to either improve the situation or minimize the impact. If there aren’t, consider whether or not it’s worth sticking it out. If not, figure out an exit strategy.

How to handle tough bosses

This breed of difficult boss doesn’t always make your professional life happy or fun, but there’s a significant difference between a bad boss and a tough boss. Where interacting with a bad boss is a toxic exchange that benefits you in no discernable way, having a tough boss can actually have the opposite effect—they can challenge you to be your best self, step out of your comfort zone, and build new and better professional skills. Tough bosses often have lofty demands and high expectations for both you and their companies, but is that such a bad thing? In fact, in some cutthroat industries where the level of competition is insanely high, having a tough boss at the helm can mean the difference between a company that navigates its way to success and a company that can’t distance itself from the crowd.

Tough bosses often expect results and require a commitment to seeing things through to the end, regardless of whatever adversity or challenge rears its ugly head. But learning to face these things head-on can be great additions to your professional skill set—both at this job and in your future endeavors. Sure, there are limits, and there’s often a fine line between a tough boss and bad boss. But if the truth is that your boss often gets on your nerves and drives you crazy, but they’re actually helping you build better skills and are turning you into a better employee, then try to appreciate what you’re getting from this exchange and do your best to learn how to work with them in a way that minimizes the awfulness and allows you to continue to benefit from the situation.

If you have a difficult boss, use the information here to diagnose whether your boss is tough or just plain bad. Then, take the necessary steps to make your professional life as fulfilling, beneficial, and stress-free as possible.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.