When the Boss is a Bully

Most of the literature on leadership addresses the topic assuming that leaders are people who are eager to learn, to inspire the best in their people, and who act on the basis of what is best for the enterprise. In the experience of many workers, unfortunately, such leaders are as mythical as unicorns and Golden Fleece. The fact of the matter is that people in positions of power come in all types and not all of them are emotionally healthy or well intentioned. If you work for a boss who wields power in a petty fashion, takes credit for the good ideas of others or quickly scapegoats others for his or her mistakes the literature on leadership in business sounds more like cynical fiction than a helpful resource.

Being in charge at work doesn’t ensure that you are interpersonally skilled any more than having children guarantees that you will be a good parent. The corporate scandals at the turn of the millennium clearly demonstrate that leaders can be self-serving and greedy, but less dramatic examples of poor leadership occur everyday. Even if they are well intentioned, leaders can abuse their power. They can be mean-spirited and nasty under the guise of being tough and demanding. They can be demeaning and caustic when they see themselves as teaching or guiding others. Some are just bullies who mistreat others simply because they are in a position to do so. A poor leader doesn’t ensure that an enterprise will fail, only that it will always be sub-optimized. Many people wind up working for bad bosses are left feeling trapped.

Are You Working For A Bully?

Being a bully plays a role that one plays in a relationship. Few bullies bully everyone. They bully whom they can. This means that bullies need victims—those who are weaker, insecure, or feel they can’t fight back (whatever their reasons). The good news implicit in this perspective is that the victims of bullies can ultimately affect the relationship and extricate themselves. How can you tell if you’re working for a bully rather than a boss who is tough and demanding? Sometimes it can be hard to tell when you are stuck in the middle of a relationship, particularly when the bully is someone to whom you would normally cede authority.

As we are using the term here, a bully is a person who uses their power to hurt, demean, or take advantage of others who do not feel they are in a position to protect themselves. For bullying to occur both parties have to perceive the disparity of power and the paucity of alternatives. The chart below (figure 1) does not purport to be exhaustive, but it will describe some of the telltale signs of bullying.

Figure 1

Symptoms Excuses Realities
Bullies indulge their tempers when dealing with people who
have less power while they control themselves in interactions with more
powerful people.
“You made me mad, they didn’t.” The pattern, however, is
that the bully tends to rage at the victim even without provocation.
“I can do it to you but I can’t do it to them.”
Bullies like to make people squirm. They humiliate, embarrass
and ridicule their victims.
“Your incompetence, stupidity, etc. warrants this type of
Bullies shore up their own damaged ego by railing at others.
They defend against their own insecurities by picking on those they see
as vulnerable.
Bullies are excessive in their reactions to the actions of
weaker people.
“You’re driving me crazy!” If the boss doesn’t get the outcome s/he seeks, he or she
isn’t leading well.
Bullies are serial attackers. They return to their victims
over and over again.
“When are you going to wise up, learn or get it.” “How many
times do I have to tell you.”
If mistakes reoccur or ignorance continues it’s a result
of poor teaching or supervision.
Bullies are arrogant in their belief that they are justified
in their behavior because they can do it.
“I’m the boss.” “Because I say so.” “Rank has its privileges.” Authority never bestows the right to indulge petty personal
feelings. Punishment doesn’t make people smarter it makes them sneakier.
Bullies take little responsibility for their own behavior. “You made me angry.” My reaction is your fault, if you’d
quit screwing up I wouldn’t get so mad.”
Every human being chooses how he or she will act on what
they feel. Ultimately you are responsible for what you do with what you
feel, so is the bully.

Bullies are identifiable by the inappropriateness of their responses to the situation. All anger isn’t bulling. Correction and discipline may be required, but a bully’s aggression is ultimately not for the good of the enterprise. It is self-serving and inappropriate. It makes him or her feel better, bigger or more adequate. It makes the victim less motivated, more pre-occupied and unprepared to perform better in the future.

Ending the Bullying:

Bullying occurs in relationships where the balance of power is believed by both parties to be lopsided. When power was equally distributed bullying doesn’t occur. While the balance of power in the workplace can be built into the situation, there are some alternatives that every victim has at his or her disposal.

There is an emotional context that surrounds attempts to alter the dynamics in any relationship. The victim feels powerless to act against the bully. Relationships in the workplace often hold broad implications of threat and loss for the victim. “Confronting the boss can cost me my job.” “What happens if I make a point of this and it only gets worse?” “I can’t address this, I have a family to support, bills to pay, obligations.” Or, most psychologically damaging of all, “I deserve this, because I do seem to screw up a lot.”

It is fear that keeps people stuck in untenable situations. Bullies act to intimidate. They nurture their advantage by undermining the confidence of the victim. Often, however, the victim can unwittingly collaborate by frightening him or herself. Always victims tell themselves that there are no acceptable alternatives available. They rule out obvious options while being unable to generate practical alternatives. Being the victim of a bully is an extremely damaging experience.

On the other hand, there are some fundamental truths operating that the victim can use to break the cycle of intimidation:

  • What we tolerate, we validate. If we allow ourselves to be bullied we are ultimately cooperating with our own abuse. It doesn’t matter how much we seethe internally or complain to others, if we allow it to occur we are agreeing that the bullying is a part of this relationship.
  • More of the same leads to more of the same. Bullying will not end because the bully wakes up one day and decides to turn over a new leaf. Unless you act to break the pattern it will continue.
  • Bullies don’t bully everyone and it takes two people to sustain a relationship. While an inferior position in the company hierarchy might set the stage for bullying, often there are subtle social signals that attract the bully to the victim.

The bottom line is that the victim must behave differently if the pattern is to be broken. You have to take constructive action and in the face of the risks involved.

Paying the Price for Freedom:

Every situation is different. Therefore, no one piece of advice will work for everyone. It is also safe to assume that some people will find reasons why any advice won’t work for them. Still, there are some common steps that anyone can take to extricate themselves from a relationship with a bully.

The first step is to talk to the bully in private. Explain that you are feeling abused and attempt to improve your relationship with your abuser. There are times when misunderstandings can be corrected. There are times when someone doesn’t recognize the impact that they are having. It is worth the effort to try to talk things out before going further within the organization.

If you are unable to resolve the situation directly, there are two questions that you need to ask yourself. Are you doing something to set the stage for the bullying? Is bullying accepted practice in your workplace?

Taking a Look at Yourself:

The first step is to analyze your situation. You may not be able to control what the boss will do but you can control your own behavior. Here are the steps that you can take:

  • Don’t frighten yourself. Control your thoughts. Don’t borrow trouble by anticipating the worst and building a sense of dread before each encounter. Deal with what is not with what could be or what should be. “What is” is generally less bad than what you can imagine.
  • Don’t give the boss the power to define you. When you are insulted or the boss attempts to humiliate you, do not take it to heart. Just because a bully says it doesn’t make it true. Indeed, a hallmark of the bully is that he or she doesn’t try to be fair or accurate. S/he says whatever will be the most cutting not what is most fair or well deserved. Bullies act to maintain the imbalance of power, not to be fair or just. You can protect yourself by refusing to accept the insults as true.
  • Control your body language. Bullies thrive on fear and weakness. Acting submissive, cringing, constant apologies and the like typically add fuel to the bullies fire. Don’t argue. Don’t escalate the encounter. Do not let yourself get hooked. Endure the moment and end the encounter as quickly as you can.

Remember, the bully is acting on an emotional agenda, not a rational one. As a result, reasoning, arguing and attempting to defend yourself are not tactics that are likely to cause the bully to stop or to see the error of his or her way.

Taking a Look at the Culture of the Company:

Bullying occurs in the context of the company’s environment. Is the bullying aberrant or is it tolerated, or even condoned as acceptable practice where you work. Bullies prey on your fears and they use the disparity in power to victimize you. You need to develop a plan for coping. There are three choices.

  1. You could take action to get the bully removed or sanctioned.
  2. You could develop a plan to minimize the damage to you while you are preparing to leave.
  3. You could walk out of the door when the bullying starts.

Which strategy will work best often depends on the culture of the company. If the bully has his or her name on the company letterhead, prepare yourself to leave. He or she is unlikely to be going anywhere and your leverage is limited. Ask yourself if others know about the bullying or if it is done in public. Is it tolerated as a part of the company’s normal working conditions? If the company sanctions it, explicitly or implicitly, make plans to leave. Things are unlikely to change for the better.

If the bullying is not an accepted part of the culture, if it is covert, or hidden from others there may be a chance to get it to stop. In this case, you should document the harassment. Get your facts together. Write down the conversations in essence if not in detail. Strive for accuracy rather than sensationalism. If others are being bullied as well see if others are willing to band together to make the case against the bully.

Take it to the Top:

If the person in question does not engage you in a good faith attempt to solve the problem and you feel that you might get relief from others in the organization, take constructive action. Go two steps above your boss in the operational hierarchy and ask for help. Explain the situation. Present your data. Ask for action to remove the bully or to put safeguards into place to stop the abuse. Have positive suggestions for a remedy.

Going to the bully’s boss might simply put that person into a position where he or she feels the need to defend their direct report. You want to avoid creating that dilemma if possible. By going two or more steps up the chain of command you have a better chance for a fair hearing. By going up the operational chain, rather than going to HR, you will be dealing with someone who has the power to affect the bully directly. This is not true in every company nor is it true of every HR organization. However, this is the surest course to take in general.

Be Prepared to Leave:

There is no guarantee that anyone will do the right thing. When you decide to take action, be prepared for conditions to worsen. In that case, your most effective course of action is to remove yourself from a hopeless situation. Line up references before you bring the issue to a head. Create a financial cushion for yourself if possible. At least, start your preliminary networking before you raise the issue publicly at work.

Talk to your friends and family about your situation at work. Seek their emotional support. Do not be ashamed of yourself. The abuse stems from the problems of the bully. They do not reflect upon you. Too often the victims of bullying isolate themselves out of shame or fear and then they feel more trapped than ever.

Your greatest vulnerability comes from the fact that you feel that you have no options. Change the dynamics. Create options for yourself. Even if the end result is a difficult transition for you, you will be serving your best interests in the long run by refusing to tolerate such abuse. It can be costly to change jobs. However, the price of submitting to a bully is always devastating while it offers almost no prospect for a change.


Not everyone in a leadership role is a good leader. Some people abuse their power simply because they can. These people are bullies. Bullying happens in the work place. A bully in a position of authority can make life miserable for his or her victims. Bullying is a sign of emotional immaturity in a leader. Even if you have made a mistake or fell short of your goals, bullying is different from constructive criticism. Bullying seeks to hurt or punish. It isn’t aimed at improving performance.

Companies that tolerate bullies in the management ranks are going to remain sub- optimized. Because bullying doesn’t correct underlying problems, other frustrations will arise and those too will be met with abusive reactions. It is a no win situation.

Because true bullying is an emotional problem it is seldom remedied by reason or logic. It isn’t a rational problem. If you are a victim of a bully it is your responsibility to take care of yourself by changing the dynamics of the relationship with your abuser. Assess your situation. Make preparations to increase your options. Recognize that you may have to change employment to affect an end to the abuse. This might not be fair, but it is realistic.