Toxic Bosses: Why Are Executives Sometimes Bad at Collaboration?

By Kelsey Boudin
Executive Director, Strength Solutions

Here’s the million-dollar question many executives will hate me for answering. Executives may be terrible at working together with their teams for any number of reasons. It’s easy to generalize and blame ego. It’s just as easy to blame hierarchy, stature or even ineptitude.

On the career ladder, we tend to look up to the top rungs and see superiors raking in huge salaries, apparently not doing much, being “toxic” and making the job harder. 

“Why is that person such a monster?” (Or worse language.) We’ve all thought it. I know I have. 

You may even dread coming to the office daily. Indeed, it seems monster bosses are a dime a dozen, and some may seem like genuinely awful people. It’s an unfortunate fact of life. But there are definitely ways to help you better understand your boss (or better understand yourself) to make the workplace more harmonious and productive.

Understanding Toxic Bosses to Improve Your Workplace Environment

We’re focusing here on collaboration because that’s ultimately what you have to do. You don’t have to like your boss or the people you work with, but you have to be able to work with them. (And, if you’re a boss reading this blog to learn a little bit more about yourself and how to build a more collaborative environment, WELCOME!)

The Virtues Project™ has us work toward better understanding of ourselves and others. So let’s do that.

1. Hierarchy

Unfortunately, ego gets the best of many executives. They’ve achieved status in the hierarchy. And through time, it’s possible for minds to become poisoned with the thought that they’re “better than others.” After all, they advanced while others didn’t, right? Well, yes, although that doesn’t excuse this toxic mindset.

Bosses may be accustomed to having the final say and being in control. Many executives shed their humility long ago – sometimes to build a “respectable” facade – which causes them to stop considering others. That’s a terrible hindrance to collaboration and innovation.

It’s important to note, hierarchy is also a necessary organizational structure. Hierarchy exists in most organizations to ensure experienced leadership. Many bosses actually have achieved higher status on merit, even if they don’t know how or are unwilling to wield that power mindfully.

But sometimes hierarchical structure itself can impede collaboration. A boss may have little control over edicts handed down by their own superiors. They may be overwhelmed by the sheer workload, to which entry- or mid-level employees may not be privy. In this case, that boss you “hate” may be just another person trying to do the best they can.

2. Executive Burnout

Being a boss is demanding and stressful. It’s easy to feel burned out and overwhelmed. Their stress – not so easily shared with staff – can bleed into the day-to-day and hurt the team’s ability to collaborate. 

They may struggle to prioritize tasks, manage their time and delegate effectively with their team members. They may become impatient, irritable, and even resort to toxic behaviors like micromanaging. Overachieving bosses may feel they need to take control of everything in order to maintain order and meet deadlines. This can lead to a lack of trust in team members, who will eventually feel unsupported and disengaged.

3. Lack of Trust

Toxic bosses often lack trust in their team members, which can severely hinder cooperation and efficiency. You may think, “If they don’t trust me, why did they hire me in the first place?”

When leaders are unwilling to trust their colleagues or team members, they may be hesitant to share information and collaborate on group projects. You know the result: a culture of silos, stunted innovation, and fear of approaching the boss for guidance or clarification. That walk to their office feels like that long, frightening tunnel to the Wizard of Oz. 

What you may not know is some workplace leaders may not even trust themselves. They may silently suffer from “imposter syndrome” or analysis paralysis. Taking risks – and trusting unknown variables like the performance of others – can be an agonizing concept.

4. Results Above Relationships

Some supervisors may prioritize results over everything else, including relationships. Of course, it’s important to achieve positive outcomes, but a sole focus on results can have negative consequences on workplace culture and team dynamics. Such leaders often use coercive tactics and micromanage staff, causing resentment, low morale, and high turnover.

Sometimes this thinking stems from being overly competitive (more on that next) or feeling team performance is a direct reflection on them. Some may be stepping back and enjoying the fruits of your labor from the golf course or a beach somewhere, pleased that the chess pieces they put in place are working effectively. But again, some direct supervisors may have their own stressors and marching orders from above. 

For many toxic bosses, empathy and concern for others’ well-being is secondary. Some don’t care if you feel valued, respected and supported, so long as the results make them look good. This type of leader needs some good training – or an exorcism.  

5. Competitive Drive

In the same light, many bosses are highly competitive. They wouldn’t be where they are without the drive and “killer instinct” that compelled them to work 20-hour days on the way to the top. While competitiveness can drive individual performance and achievement, it can also handcuff collaboration with peers and team members.

Like those who prize results over relationships, toxic bosses competing against their own team members may cringe at one of their “underlings” receiving credit for a successful team project. They may hold back key components so they themselves are the ones who drive home the “final nail.” (What they may not know is they’ll likely drive home the “final nail” in the coffin of their own career if they continue this flawed thinking long-term.)

6. Not Knowing Better

Unfortunately, all of us are a product of our environments, whether we like it or not. Toxic bosses who struggle with collaboration may not have developed the necessary skills because they didn’t receive training or mentorship in their careers. 

Your supervisor may have worked at an organization that inadvertently prioritized individual achievement over cooperation, which can reinforce a “me-first” mentality. Their own previous bosses may have “played favorites,” so standing out above the crowd was the only way to survive. Or your boss may have been promoted too soon before learning proper team-management skills.

In these cases, your toxic boss simply may not know better.

The Virtues Project™ Nurtures Collaboration in the Workplace

Whether the source is a toxic boss or not, poor collaboration in the workplace must be addressed. The Virtues Project™ can help supervisors break free from this mindset by emphasizing the importance of recognizing and valuing the strengths of others, building trust and prioritizing relationships. 

Leaders aren’t infallible. They too can – and should – develop the necessary collaboration skills like active listening, managing conflict, comfortable vulnerability, shared problem-solving, self-regulation, humility, curiosity, and genuine caring.

But as we often see, entire workplace teams can benefit from more effective communication and cooperation. The happy news is, you don’t need employer buy-in to see Virtues Project™ training to build upon character strengths and work more harmoniously. Contact me at or (585) 307-7389 to set up training for your team.

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