Dealing with a Bully Boss
Learn about how to deal with a power-tripping boss.
By Hara Estroff Marano published February 4, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The steady flow of uncertain news about the economy indicates that American companies are under tremendous pressure to improve profits. No question, that pressure is felt all the way up and down the management line.
Hard times sometimes bring out the best in people, but anxious times can also bring out the bullies lurking in corporate ranks. There are several flavors of bad bosses, but bullies are the ones who misuse their power over others. They verbally abuse you, humiliate you in front of others.
Everyone has a war story. There's the boss who calls at 2 a.m. from Paris -- just because he's there. The boss who asks for your evaluation of a problem and then proceeds to put you and your opinion down in front of the whole staff as you seethe with rage. It's a demonstration of power. And it's demeaning.
Bully bosses overcontrol, micromanage, and display contempt for others, usually by repeated verbal abuse and sheer exploitation. They look over your shoulder. They constantly put others down, with snide remarks or harsh, repetitive, and unfair criticism. They don't just differ with you, they differ with you contemptuously; they question your adequacy and your commitment. They spew on people in support functions, on competitors, perhaps even their own bosses.
Nowadays, most bullies are weeded out before they get to the very top of big companies, but they thrive in the mid ranks, and at all ranks of smaller firms, where the quality of management suffers due to the absence of professional managers.
Bad bosses are often very bright workers. And therein lies the problem. They make a significant contribution to the company as workers. They get promoted because of their technical proficiency and expertise. And they wind up supervising others.
As long as you do things their way, you're a winner. But they don't generate innovation -- and if there's one thing companies need today it's constant innovation.
Bullies do a lot of damage in companies. They keep you in a state of psychological emergency. Add to it the rage you feel towards the bully and a sense of self-rage for putting up with such behavior -- hardly prime conditions for doing your best work, or any work at all.
It's never easy to make headway with an office bully. But here are some tactics culled from experts that could help you handle bully bosses.
- Confront the bully. "I'm sorry you feel you have to do that but I will not put up with that kind of behavior. It has no place here." It can be startlingly effective. A bully can't bully if you don't let yourself be bullied.
- Conduct the confrontation in private -- behind closed doors. A bully won't back down in front of an audience.
- Specify the behavior that's unworkable. "You cannot just fire from the hip and demean me in front of other workers."
- Don't play armchair psychologist. Focus the discussion on specific behaviors, not theories of why you think the boss does it.
- Make your boss aware of the consequences of his or her behavior on others. "I've been noticing how Peter seems so demoralized lately. I think a contributing factor may be last week's meeting when you ridiculed him for producing an inadequate report."
- Awareness is good but not enough; help your boss figure out what to do. Specify the behavioral change you want and supply an example of desirable behavior -- from the boss' own repertoire of actions. Jump in with "I can recall a month ago when you were ... lavish in your praise of that new assistant," or whatever.
- Point out how the boss' behavior is seen by others. "You embarrass me when you publicly humiliate me in a meeting, but you also embarrass yourself. You're demonstrating your weakness."
- Try humor. If you point out to your boss that she's acting like a cartoon caricature, that may be enough to make her aware.
- Recruit an ally or allies. Standing up for yourself can stop a bully by earning his/her respect. But it could also cost your job. The higher your boss is in the organization, the more you need allies. Check out with other workers whether the behavior you are experiencing is generalized. If it is, it's easier for two or three people to confront a boss than one alone.
- If you are important to the organization, you may accomplish your goal by going to your boss' boss.