What to Do When You Have a Bully for a Boss

This is a guest post from a fabulous friend of mine, Lauren Gonzalez, MS, CM. Lauren is a mediator and conflict coach, and the owner of Summit Resolution Services. If you need help with a conflict you're in, she is an amazing resource! Check out her site for more information, and enjoy this helpful post! bow-tie-businessman-fashion-man

When I was 16 years old, I got my first job at a small boutique clothing store near downtown Dallas. The staff was small – just myself, an elderly lady named Cynthia*, and our boss, Janine*. The three of us worked well together, enjoying lunch breaks chatting about the US Open and the places we’d love to visit if only we had the time and money to travel.

I felt like my first employment experience was a smashing success; I enjoyed my work and felt comfortable in my environment. I felt that, by all accounts, I was an exemplary employee, with just one small hitch: I was perpetually late. Not glaringly so, just three minutes one day, five minutes the next. My job was to open the shop, but there were never customers waiting for me to open the doors in the morning. “What’s the big deal?” I’d thought.

Unbeknownst to me, it WAS a big deal to Janine. After working at the boutique for a few months, I arrived a few minutes late one morning, and Janine was there to greet me at the door. She said nothing, but the look on her face said it all: I was in big trouble. I silently went about my duties, vacuuming, dusting, opening the register, and Janine remained stoic. I convinced myself that perhaps I’d imagined her displeasure, but as I entered the kitchen for my first cup of coffee, there sat Janine waiting for me.

Without much fanfare, she proceeded to yell at me about my chronic tardiness, her face beet red, her neck veins bulging. I’d never seen Janine behave that way. I was speechless, blindsided. She concluded her tirade as quickly as it had begun, and after her swift departure from the kitchen I sat dumbfounded, tears stinging my eyes. After what felt like hours, I pulled myself together and continued about my work. I can’t recall if I was ever late again to that particular job, but I do remember giving my notice a few weeks later.

At 16, I was not able to process such hostility, much less summon the confidence to stand up to it. Life experience had not yet taught me how to advocate for myself, or to question the “leadership” style of my boss. Some out there might advise that I “toughen up,” believing that leadership is synonymous with shouting orders, making threats, and “keeping everyone in line.” These folks belong to a decades-old school of thought that views the workplace as only a place to do work. Punch your time card, keep your head down, do your work, save the personal growth for your personal time. The problem is, work is personal. I took my boutique job seriously, I felt proud of my accomplishments as an employee, and Janine’s attack felt personal, whether or not it was meant to. Her behavior created a toxic workplace, where I feared that any small mistake might set her off, and the only feasible response seemed to be a walk away.

Sadly, this type of workplace scenario is not uncommon. There are Janines in every industry, using bully tactics to get the results they want. Sometimes their tactics are overt – shouting, public shaming, relying on punitive measures. Sometimes they are more insidious, using bribery or threats to “motivate” employees. Unfortunately, bully bosses have a way of affecting an entire office culture. Oftentimes you can spot them by identifying the side effects they produce: high turnover, mostly silent meetings where nobody feels safe to provide real input, an office filled with tense, overworked employees, a highly toxic workplace that inhibits growth.

The truth is, bully bosses are not just a problem for their employees, they are also a real problem for the organization they serve. Any leadership style that silences creativity, growth, or change is a detriment to the workplace. And any employee working under a bully boss is familiar with the struggle. But what can you do, as a single employee, to effect change on a person in a position of power? How can you advocate for yourself when you may fear real repercussions?

In any conflict situation, I always advise my clients to start with themselves. When confronting any sort of bully – in the workplace or elsewhere – you can increase your efficacy by understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you bring to the table. Identify your strengths as an employee. Identify your areas of weakness. Work to gain a realistic understanding of the positive aspects you bring to your organization. Enlist the help of a trusted friend or colleague if you have trouble identifying your skills and talents. This knowledge will not only bolster your confidence that you are worthy of being treated better, it may behoove you to remind your bully boss just what you bring to the table – particularly if he or she often focuses myopically on your flaws and mistakes.

Next, get wise to yourself. Find a peaceful place (probably away from the office) where you can get clarity about how you feel when you are bullied, and how your boss’s bully tactics affect your work. When Janine yelled at me, I felt a mix of fear and anger, but underneath these emotions, I felt disrespected. As a result, I wanted to hide any mistakes I made, avoid asking Janine questions about even mundane matters, and, eventually, I wanted to make my exit from the business altogether. These are things I could have shared with Janine, giving her more insight into my perspective on her behavior.

Third, identify how you want to be treated. Oftentimes a person can feel overwhelmed when confronted with a list of emotions. What is often more helpful is to springboard from how you felt to making clear requests for identifiable, tangible changes. For example, I could have requested that Janine discuss troubling behavior – such as my tardiness – without yelling, and that she confront me as soon as she notices an issue, rather than waiting several weeks and exploding.

Finally, develop a plan. For me, this step is the most difficult, because I get so caught up in waiting for the “right moment” that I never take action. Or, I convince myself that the matter is not worth revisiting, and talk myself out of confronting my boss altogether. The key is to address the issue swiftly – within the next week or so, while it is fresh on your mind – and as appropriately as possible. You probably won’t be stuck in an elevator with your boss any time soon, giving you the perfect amount of uninterrupted time, so pick a time when you know your boss is usually undisturbed, or (even better) actively schedule a half hour block with your boss to have a conversation.

The key to a productive dialogue is creating as much relational safety as possible, so although you may feel fearful and intimidated, try not to go in guns blazing – remember that you are modeling the very behavior you would like to see from your boss. If necessary, involve a third party – a trusted colleague or supervisor who might support you during the discussion, or offer neutral insight into the situation – but the goal is not to intimidate or scare your boss into behaving better. Threats do not usually result in lasting change, and may heap more repercussions on you. When you are facing someone in a position of power, it often helps to have a backup plan that can provide an “out” in the event that things do not go well. Perhaps you can involve your bosses’ supervisor, or, if no other option is available, give your notice and find a healthier place of employment. Your backup plan is not meant to be used as a threat, but as a confidence-builder that provides you an alternative option if necessary.

We are all sending messages to those around us about how we ought to be treated, whether we realize it or not. If I allow someone to consistently yell at and belittle me, I am sending a message that I am okay with this behavior. Yet, if I simply quit a job without trying to discuss the matter with my boss, I am missing an opportunity to grow, and to be an active part of creating a workplace that does not tolerate bullying. Remember that your boss is a whole person – not all good, but certainly not all bad. Many bully bosses are enacting behavior they have seen modeled by their bosses, or are simply not naturally skilled leaders, so they feel they must rely on heavy-handedness to achieve results.

I cannot fault my 16-year-old self for the way I reacted with Janine, but if I were confronted with the same scenario today, here is what I would do:

  • I would create a realistic picture of myself. I would acknowledge honestly to myself that my tardiness was unacceptable, and own my mistake. I would also find encouragement in knowing that I was great at interacting with customers, exceptional at organizing inventory, and overall a quality employee.
  • I would dig deep into why Janine’s actions bothered me, and how I felt after the incident.
  • I would imagine what I would like my future interactions with Janine to look like, and I would identify precise behavioral changes that must happen in order to feel respected.
  • A day or two later, I would ask Janine to sit down with me after the shop closed to discuss our working relationship, and I would make concrete requests about how I would prefer to be treated.

There is no guarantee that my conversation with Janine would have gone smoothly, or that she would have listened, or changed.

Still, even if I quit the boutique after a failed attempt to create dialogue, I would feel great about my decision, knowing that I tried absolutely everything I could before leaving. Perhaps the next person in my position would be treated differently as a result of my efforts. Perhaps I would still be working there today.

Know someone who has a bully for a boss? Consider passing along these skills by sharing this post with them!

*These were not their real names.