If you have a Bully Boss, I really feel for you. Sadly, too many of us have had to deal with a bully boss at some point in our careers. Bullying is frequently the last resort of limited thinkers and cowards. Unfortunately, for some bully bosses it’s actually their first resort.
Bullying often comes from a feeling of insecurity and a sense that things are out of control. Or the simple neurotic need to be in absolute control — at all times. If you truly feel secure in yourself, you don’t need to belittle or terrorize others. And you don’t need constant reinforcement of your power.
The realities of bullying in the workplace
No question bullying is cruel and abusive behavior. And an employee should not have to tolerate this behavior from anyone, especially their boss. But this behavior does exist now, existed in the past, and will continue to exist as long as there are relationships of varying degrees of power.
And here’s the worst part. Most people can’t just get up and quit their jobs because they disagree with a boss’ management style. And so you’re stuck. And, depending on the degree and ferocity of the bullying, it can make your job profoundly unbearable.
So how do you deal with a Bully Boss?
As with other workplace behaviors, it’s essential not to personalize this. Getting angry and holding on to that anger won’t help the situation. And it won’t help you. What it will do, is give the makers of Zantac much more business than they need.
The thing is that your boss is inflicting his problem on you. It’s HIS problem. and yet it becomes your challenge. Thankfully you don’t have to be with him outside of work. And you have the added benefit of knowing he has to live with himself and his lousy temper the rest of his life.
To deal with a Bully, first figure out what kind of bully your boss is. If you have one who is relentlessly cruel and abusive, day-in and day-out, it may be the time to head for the nearest exit. No one deserves this kind of punishment.
So what if your boss is a Continual Bully?
If at all possible, before running, your first stop should be his office. Just in case he has an actual sense of decency and/or an awareness of his own behavior. Surprisingly some do. I was in that situation once, and got some positive changes. With an emphasis on “some”.
No matter how hard it is for you, it’s important that you calmly but firmly explain that the way he is treating you is not acceptable. Try leading with a positive statement about the job — something you really enjoy. And then something positive about him that you respect, even if you have to reach for it. Best if it’s something he has shown pride in.
Then, after the softening, as calmly as possible point out specific things he’s said or done. Just in case he honestly doesn’t realize what a jerk he’s being.
This is not the time for blatant accusations and finger pointing. That will get his bully in full gear. Of course, he may blow up. Be prepared for that. But you are already thinking of leaving so it’s worth a shot. Some bullies rely on folks cowering in fear. At least you’ll know you tried.
He may actually promise to act differently. And maybe he will. But in the most severe cases, the odds are very slim that he’ll be successful. So, if your instincts tell you not to even try this based on what you’ve already observed … follow your instincts!
What about going to Human Resources?
If discussion fails or if you decide not to go that route, your next stop should be Human Resources. If you do have an HR department, you would need to make your complaints known. And then try to get yourself a transfer. (Good to have solid documentation with you.)
The thing is, in many companies, even if they want to help, Human Resources often winds up supporting management. They may be well aware of your boss’s bullying. Amazingly, bullies frequently get promoted for their ability to “get things done”. But in severe cases, it’s probably worth a try.]
As mentioned, it’s important to document the bullying instances, so you have specifics to bring with you. Specifics, calmly presented, are more effective than general “you did this” accusations. Especially to a bully,
Clearly defined documented examples will also help you with Human Resources. It’s hard to dismiss you with all those things carefully gathered on a page. And those same notes will be very useful for an unemployment claim, if you wind up quitting or being let go.
If your efforts fail, then it is time to look for another job if at all possible. No one should put up with a truly abusive bully. Plus, any work you do will only go toward strengthening his position and his ability to bully others.
What about the Intermittent Bully?
The truly abusive Continual Bully is a relative rarity. But if you have what I call an Intermittent Bully, you may be able to learn to work with him, at least for a while. I know we have an image of the always raging, impossibly inflexible bully. But some are at least partially tameable.
Just as with the first type of bully, you need to ask to sit down in private. And then calmly and carefully explain what it feels like from your perspective. (Again lead with some softening words.) And politely but firmly let him know you want him to stop treating you that way.
It might help to find out if there’s also anything you do that annoys him. This isn’t to put the blame on you. But it always helps to understand how the other person perceives a situation. You want to help him feel that you understand and respect his perspective.
Not to conjure up 50 Shades of Bully Boss, but if this is an aware bully, he could be someone you can actually talk to (when he isn’t yelling). Perhaps, if he’s open to making this work, you can agree on a mutual cue to diffuse things. A safe word or phrase, of sorts. Or maybe a gesture. (Not THAT one.)
If it’s something you come up with together, the cue could help to bring down the tension. Again, this probably won’t work with most bullies. But if you see that willingness and a sense of self-awareness in your boss, you can at least try to bring this up gently.
Snapping turtle boss moments
Of course, if the Bully Boss is someone who snaps or bites when his temper flares, for just that moment it may be best to allow the outburst to go unanswered. If your boss is caught up in the emotion, anything you say may fan the flames.
Just let him be in the moment. You may even ever-so-slightly lower your head and eyes, like with a mad dog. Just for that moment. I know that sounds odd, but small gestures can have big effects. Yes, he’s belittling you. But if he’s caught in one of his triggers, you can’t fight him and win anything of value.
Best to take that moment to calmly say “yes” or “aha” and then come back to talk when he has calmed down. Responding with your own outburst might feel good, but it won’t get anything resolved unless that’s something the two of you have practiced successfully before.
Now, I am not suggesting you should just swallow your own anger. This would be horrible for your health and your self-esteem. Just take a deep breath. Go talk to a friend. Or get one of those inflatable clown dolls to punch privately (you know, the ones that bounce back).
Tips for diffusing your own anger
Whatever it takes to diffuse your anger outside of your boss’s office would be helpful. Deep breathing. Taking a walk. Five-minute meditation. The main thing is to realize HIS anger has nothing to do with you as a person.
There’s a wonderful game at Coney Island I find particularly helpful for diffusing anger. It’s called Whack-a-Mole. You put money in the machine, and little moles start popping up. And then you go whack!!
The object of the game is to whack them on their little heads with a mallet. And you earn lots of points for doing that. I’m not sure what a therapist would say about this, but I find the game unbelievably therapeutic. (No real moles are hurt in the process.)
My own Whack-a-Mole moment
Once when I was working with someone who drove me nuts, I decided to go out to Coney Island to relax and release some tension. Every time I whacked the little mole on its head, I screamed my co-worker’s name. It felt incredible!
And as bizarre as this may sound, the next time I had to deal with this person, I actually felt a fondness for her. Ever since then, I’ve continued to feel that way toward her, even though she hasn’t changed one iota. Interesting how our reactions can be modulated.
Of course, Whack-a-Mole may not be the answer for everyone, nor is it the whole solution. When you deal with a Bully Boss, you need to take an active part in managing your relationship with him.
What to do beyond Whack-a-Mole for an Intermittent Bully boss
Let your boss know you’re ready to work hard to make him look good. But also that you expect respect and consideration in return. Set boundaries. Both for yourself and together with your boss if you can. Again, specifics help. Just because your boss is a Bully, doesn’t mean you have to be a victim.
As for working with a Bully Boss, think about using managing-up techniques, where you help him look good and also get things done you feel good about. It’s a win-win. Plus, by managing up, you take positive action. And that keeps you from being a victim.
As a final reminder, when you deal with a Bully Boss, it helps to deal mainly with concrete issues rather than emotions or tangents. The bully responds best when you focus on tangible details and tasks.
But in any event, a handy-dandy tension release plan for yourself is also a good thing to have around. Besides the health benefits for you, the calm may even be contagious. As with a mad dog, you don’t want to fan the flames with your own anger or fear!
For more on bosses who yell:
Some more articles to help