The four types of nightmare boss

There isn’t just one type of nightmare boss out there: there are ones who are aggressive; some who are slippery; others who use subtler forms of bullying; or are two-faced so you never know where you stand.

We’ve devised a simple 2×2 with four different types of poor, nightmare manager depending on how confrontational they are and how predictable they are.

The HIPPO nightmare boss

These are confrontational and unpredictable managers.

Think about the hippo in the wild — the most dangerous animals in Africa, killing more people than lions: an estimated 500 people every year, compared to a paltry 200 lion kills.

At work, you’ll find them:

  • Controlling
  • Irrational
  • Intimidating
  • They may be successful and visionary but they are the bully in the office. 

In fact, they show behaviour not unlike those of a subclinical psychopath. If you think that’s extreme a 2016 study by forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks showed that while only 1% of the general population have psychopathic traits, 21% of CEOs have clinically significant psychopathic tendencies – which is the same percentage of prisons inmates in the UK!

The traits of a psychopath include:

  • Exploiting, manipulating or violating the rights of others.
  • Lacking concern, regret or remorse about other people’s distress.
  • Behaving irresponsibly and show disregard for normal social behaviours.
  • Being unable to control their anger.
  • Lacking guilt, or not learn from their mistakes..
  • Blaming others for problems in their lives.

I had a client who’s boss was a typical Hippo. He’d ask her to produce a presentation, and then the day before it was needed, he’d look at it and then fly off the handle about how it was rubbish, and why couldn’t they follow simple instructions, and expect a complete rewrite, with my client to work through the night to get it done. 

Workplace scenarios that detail how this particular nightmare boss behaves include:


  • The Hippo nightmare boss gives only negative feedback.
  • The weaker you are the stronger they become.


  • Likes playing little vindictive games.
  • Creates targets that are impossible to meet.


Hippos will seek to be in control and they’re not interested in hearing what others think.

Under stress

Will become aggressive, lashing out.

To find out how to deal with a hippo nightmare boss, take a look at my online course, How to Deal with Your Nightmare Boss


The SNAKE nightmare boss

This is the boss that is hyper political — just picture them slithering around the place. 

Here the some of his/her characteristics of this poor manager:

  • Quick to take credit for all your hard work.
  • Unpredictable.
  • Not outwardly confrontational — making them all the more deadly.
  • Just like a snake, he/she moves silently, and you don’t even know he/she’s there until it’s too late.
  • Cold, thoughtful, cunning, he/she knows everything about everything. 
  • A teflon coated narcissist, his/her career comes before all else.
  • He has a knack for slinking out of trouble, and passing the buck to some other poor helpless sap. 

An example of a snake boss was when a coach of mine changed division to work for someone known to be a snake. It was difficult because the service my client was running an important, high-visibility project, and the snake wanted to get in there and know all about it. So, to start with he was very accommodating and sided with my client during meetings, but it soon turned out that he had his own agenda, and he began getting involved in some of the high-profile elements of the project. So he could seem like he owned it, he started to undermine my client and question small decisions that sent him off on wild goose chases leaving him open to criticism. Then the snake would step in and saving the day. It was sneaky and political and all designed to make the snake look good at my client’s expense.

Workplace scenarios that detail how this particular nightmare boss behaves include:


This nightmare manager makes sure their direct reports have a long list of development points to work on.


Your objectives form part of his/her political agenda.


  • They will play games to unnerve people. 
  • Override meeting agendas. 
  • They will ask difficult questions, just to be difficult.

Under stress

They’ll take no prisoners — everyone is fair game.

To find out how to deal with a snake nightmare boss, take a look at my online course, How to Deal with Your Nightmare Boss


The GORILLA nightmare boss

Here you need to visualise a silverback, always primed and ready to reassert his authority with a good bit of chest-banging. It’s all a bit of a show, but still frightening at firsthand. 

Here are some of his/her characteristics:

  • They tend to be out of their depth or over-promoted, so are insecure, which is why you get all that bluster. 
  • They use their title to give them power. Good leaders don’t need to do that, they can use their vision, influence and charisma, but the gorilla has none of that so struts around making sure everyone’s know they are the boss, demanding respect. 
  • Although the gorilla is confrontational, at least they are predictable with it.

One of my clients was a typical gorilla boss. He was very arrogant – he had all the answers. He blamed anyone and everyone, from his direct reports to the tea-lady for his failings – in fact, on one occasion he complained to me an investment meeting had been a disaster because the arrangements for coffee had gone wrong! The problem was he was clearly out of his depth and didn’t know what he was doing. He was not prepared to ask for help or accept any support or advice, and instead he complained and blamed. His worst characteristic was his need to control: he got really frustrated when things didn’t move forward as he thought they should – he was a control freak and he’d storm around belittle others, throwing around his superior rank as his bullying tactic.

Workplace scenarios that detail how this particular nightmare boss behaves include:


  • It’s likely to be based on old news, or things you already know. 
  • Tendency to focus on the negative and ignore the good things you’ve done.


  • Opportunity for the gorilla to assert his authority.
  • He won’t give you the chance to have an input.


Fine when they are in control and everyone is agreeing with them.

Under stress

He’ll look to assertive his/her authority.

To find out how to deal with a gorilla nightmare boss, take a look at my online course, How to Deal with Your Nightmare Boss


The OSTRICH nightmare boss

This might seem the best of the bunch as they are a non-confrontational boss, but by positively avoiding conflict at all costs it creates problems for those around them. 

It’s actually amazing how many bosses I come across in my coaching who are like this. They really hate conflict, and it’s amazing they’ve got where they’ve got. Some of these mangers can do conflict, but just won’t unless they really have to. Others won’t and will use manipulation and nastiness instead. 

They are predictable managers however – predictably unavailable and unhelpful. These managers don’t mean to be useless, it’s just they are not very secure and don’t have any clue how to manage others.

Essentially you could describe them as spineless — a bit of a wet blanket; they are anxious and avoid risk. A manager quite different to the other three, but a nightmare boss nonetheless.

One of my coachees had an Ostrich boss who couldn’t make a decision, and when they finally did they would change their mind as the wind changed direction. It meant that my coachee never really knew where they were going or if they were working on the right things.  

Workplace scenarios that detail how this particular nightmare boss behaves include:


  • Don’t do positive feedback since means making a judgement
  • Negative feedback is a head-in-the-sand moment


  • Few if any objectives are given – you’re expected to write your own
  • Be proactive in undertaking your own self-development


  • They’ll use tactics to avoid taking responsibility 
  • They play favourites – though they can change quickly 

Under stress

Head in the sand, signing “I’m all right, Jack”

To find out how to deal with an ostrich nightmare boss, take a look at my online course, How to Deal with Your Nightmare Boss.


Written by Marie Willis, co-founder and online course tutor, Unchain Your Brain.


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