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.

Taking Care of Yourself After a Workplace Conflict

balance-15712_1280 This is part three of the three-part series, Taking Care of Yourself Before, During, and After a Workplace Conflict.

You survived the conflict! Congratulations. You had the tough conversation, which required a lot of courage. Even if it didn't go as well as you'd hoped, congratulate yourself for facing what probably felt scary or overwhelming. Now that it's over, here are a few things you can do to help make the most of your accomplishment.

  1. Calm your system if it's in overdrive. If your heart is still racing, your palms sweating, or your breathing shallow, take a few seconds to get back down to baseline. This could mean taking a quick step outside, taking 5 deep belly breaths, or drinking some water. Recognize what's happening in your body and take care of it.
  2. Discharge the negative emotions. If your conversation was hurtful or frustrating, you probably have some negative energy pent up that you need to let go of in order to move on with your day. If there's someone at work who you trust and who is supportive, it may make sense to stop by their desk and share what happened and how you're feeling. If there's no one at work you're comfortable talking to, reach out to a loved one for encouragement. That said...
  3. Keep the venting to a minimum. I know, I know, it feels so good to over-analyze the conversation and throw some digs in behind your counterpart's back, but research shows that rehashing a situation angrily really only solidifies your anger. Check out these articles here and here to learn more about how to effectively manage negative emotion and the desire to vent.
  4. Reflect on what worked. You can either write this down or just acknowledge it in your mind, but take a few minutes to reflect on what about that conversation worked well. Did the way you started the conversation (your opener) set a positive tone? Did you keep breathing deeply throughout the conversation? Were you able to come up with a creative solution? Recognize any and everything that worked. Writing it down will help you remember that you can totally handle conflict when it comes up again.
  5. Write it out. If it makes sense, write out any agreements you and your counterpart(s) made and share or email them to the other parties. This will help to a) ensure that everyone is on the same page moving forward, and b) help keep everyone accountable to what was discussed. It's hard to communicate too much in the midst of conflict, and writing out agreements or next steps is one of the most effective ways to close out a conflict and move forward effectively and transparently. When in doubt, write it out.

I hope this series has helped encourage you to have the conversations you need to have while also keeping yourself safe and healthy. Conflict anywhere is difficult, but our workplaces add on layers of complexity that can be tough to manage. If you're ever in need of some more personalized conflict coaching, I hope you'll reach out here!

Taking care of yourself during a workplace conflict

balance-15712_1280 This is part two of the three-part series, Taking Care of Yourself Before, During, and After a Workplace Conflict.

Assuming you've found yourself in conflict at work (which is inevitable, by the way), I want to share some thoughts about how you can take care of yourself and, as a result, participate meaningfully. This is so important because if you're not able to quiet all of the bells and whistles going off in your body that are telling you to punch your counterpart in the face or run out of the conference room, you won't be able to transform the conflict into something positive.

Here are three quick and easy things you can do to improve your chances of getting out of this conflict with increased empathy, better problem-solving skills, and an outcome that you can live with (or might even like):

  1. Be kind to yourself. The only thing you have control over in conflict is you. Conflicts can bring up a lot in us - fear, anger, sadness, the list goes on. Our emotions have physical expressions: a knot in the stomach, shortness of breath, sweating, or shaking. These emotions and physical expressions are signals that we feel endangered, which can be helpful, but in the case of an interpersonal or organizational conflict, they cloud our ability to intuit clearly. Berating yourself for having these emotions or physical symptoms makes it even worse. So if you feel like you're going to throw up because your boss isn't understanding you, try not to tell yourself that you're a terrified piece of shit; instead, you can say to yourself, "I recognize that I'm afraid, and that's totally okay". Then take a big, deep breath and tell your boss what you need.
  2. So many deep breaths. When our bodies go into the "fight or flight" response, we start to breathe quickly and from the chest, which is shallow breathing. This means our brain isn't getting the oxygen it needs to support our high-level executive functioning - the stuff that helps us feel, think, and negotiate clearly. If you can only remember one thing from this post, it's this: just take a few deep belly breaths. Here's how.
  3. Ground yourself. When our systems are escalated, we can lose our connection to our bodies and to the earth, causing us to feel totally out of sorts and unable to be present with what is happening in and around us. To reconnect with the here and now, simply feel yourself sitting in your chair or feel the clothes on your body. If you're standing, imagine your feet rooting into the earth below your office building. Grounding yourself will make you feel centered and calm.

By taking care of yourself during conflict, you're better able to see the other person(s) that you're in conflict with as total, complex human beings who are also dealing with emotions that are sending them lots of "Danger!" signals. Once you're more connected to the shared humanity of those you're in conflict with, you can think more creatively about how to transform it into something that is meaningful for everyone involved.

Stay tuned for Taking Care of Yourself After a Workplace Conflict! 

Taking care of yourself before a workplace conflict

balance-15712_1280 There are people (like my Dad) who can engage in a difficult or tense encounter with someone and quickly rebound to a state of calm and "togetherness". Then there are people like me, whose palms start sweating and hearts start racing at the whiff of a potential conflict (this makes me wonder why I got a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution, but then I remember that we seek out what we need to learn).

If you're sensitive like I am, I have some thoughts on how to take better care of yourself before, during, and after a difficult interaction in the workplace. Before I dive in, though, I want to say that not all conflicts are deserving of your time and energy. Dealing with conflicts respectfully and directly is usually your best option, but there are some workplace conflicts that won't ever be transformed, despite your best efforts. Before you decide whether or not to have a tough conversation with someone you're in conflict with, make sure it's a conflict that truly needs to be addressed and that you're engaging with someone who - at the very least - respects your shared humanity.

Assuming you do need to engage in a conflict with someone in the workplace, here are 5 things you can do to take care of yourself beforehand. Taking these steps will not only better protect your body and spirit, they'll also allow you to think more clearly and more creatively during the interaction. Remember: the only things you have control over in a difficult conversation are your own perceptions, reactions, and contributions.

  1. Incorporate mindfulness into your daily rhythms at work. Even if you're only able to do this right now or right before your difficult conversation, it will make a difference. There is so. much. evidence. of how mindfulness expands our ability to engage with others at a higher level. Incorporating mindfulness could look like setting a reminder on your phone that says "Take 5 deep breaths", meditating in the mornings for 10 minutes, or committing to take quiet walks before and after your lunch break. Just start small - I know you'll notice a change in how you orient to yourself and your work environment.
  2. Reframe the conversation. How you label the conversation matters, and you can find a more positive reframe that feels right to you (even if it feels fake at first!). If the term "conflict" invokes feelings of fear or a pounding heart, come up with a different frame for the conversation. If you need to tell your boss "no", you might try labeling the conversation something like "setting good boundaries and finding a different solution." If you need to point out an error that a colleague made, try labeling that conversation "offering up feedback in order to make our work better." Whatever reframing you do, try to think of the "difficult conversation" you're about to have as just one of many normal conversations you'll have that day.
  3. Find something that is comforting at work and use that right before your conversation. The more calm and centered you are before the conversation you need to have, the better it will go, guaranteed. So find something at work that is comforting and nourishing to you and engage in that beforehand. This could be texting a loved one, finding cute animal pictures online, or spritzing some Anxiety Away mist around you.
  4. Assume that the conversation is going to go well. Assume the best of the person you're engaging with. Imagine your boss saying that the alternative you offered is wonderful. Imagine your colleague thanking you for the feedback and asking how you'd recommend s/he fix it.
  5. Plan ahead. If you're going to have a conversation that is about something complex or you're worried you won't be able to say what you need to, jot some notes down beforehand. This can help you clarify what you really want out of the conversation and help you speak from a calm, centered place within you.

Stay tuned for the next installment, Taking Care of Yourself During a Workplace Conflict!

If you like podcasts, check out the one I did on How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace!

Podcast Episode: How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to record a podcast with Brandon Laws at Xenium HR, which provides a full suite of HR consulting services for small businesses in and around the Portland area. You can listen at the link below or find a transcription here. I hope you find it useful as you navigate your interactions with those that you work with! Link to podcast: How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace