Working for Bully Bosses 101

The following is based on a true story. Some details, including names and context, have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Joe Gleason vividly recalls the first time he met with his boss – Clyde Lally – after Joe was hired for a sales manager position. Joe couldn’t have been more excited about beginning his new job and getting off on the right foot with his new boss. After greeting Joe, and inviting him to have a seat and a cup of coffee, Clyde began the conversation this way:

Clyde: “Just so you know how things work around here, I fired the last sales manager two weeks ago.”

Joe: “I knew that he had been let go, but I was not aware of the circumstances. I don’t mean to pry, but may I ask why you had to fire him?”

Clyde: “Simple. He didn’t do what I told him to do.”

Joe: “And what was it that you asked him to do?”

Clyde: “What’s the difference?”

Joe: “Forgive me. If you think that it’s none of my business, I understand. I only asked so that I can make sure that I am clear about your expectations so that I can be sure to meet them.

Clyde: (raising his voice) “Yeah, well I think that I’m making my expectations crystal clear. I expect my sales manager to do what I tell him to do.”

Joe:  (silent – not sure how to respond).

Clyde: (standing up and glaring down at Joe) “Are we clear? Or do I need to make another change?”

Joe: “I believe that I understand.”

Joe wasn’t sure to what make of what he was hearing. Was Clyde telling him that he expected blind obedience to his authority? And was he really threatening him with termination if Joe didn’t comply? Joe could imagine many circumstances in which, for the sake of the sales team’s success and to serve customers well, Joe might need to persuade Clyde to rethink his orders. There would be many occasions in which Joe would have access to vital information that would be invaluable to Clyde’s decision making. Did Clyde really want Joe to just keep his mouth shut and do as he was told? And why was Clyde getting so angry?

Joe was bewildered. He had imagined that the first meeting with his new boss would go very differently. He certainly didn’t expect that it would end with a demand for Joe’s oath of unconditional loyalty that carried an explicit threat of termination.

After his conversation with Clyde, Joe sought clarification from Rick, another member of the sales team, someone who had for several years worked with the previous sales manager. Rick confirmed Joe’s worst fears. Clyde had an authoritarian leadership style and was quick to anger when his orders were questioned. And that sales manager that Clyde fired two weeks ago? Joe learned that Clyde frequently bullied him in front the sales team – Clyde frequently called him a “dope” -- and often blamed him for Clyde’s own mistakes.

Joe was deeply concerned, but he had faith in his own social skills, and he was determined to find a way to make this work. And thus began a working relationship that, for Joe, lasted eight miserable months. During that time, Joe experienced things that were new to him: difficulty concentrating on his work, a persistent sense of unease and doubts about his own ability to get the job done. He decided enough was enough when he realized that it was affecting his behavior toward his own employees and even his family. Joe realized that Clyde brought out the worst version of Joe and that it was time to move on. And his experiences align with the long list of injurious outcomes that researchers have documented in studies of abusive/bully bosses[1]: These include:

  • damage to individual and team productivity and morale
  • injury to individual psychological and physical health
  • impaired ability to muster the resources necessary to solve problems and adapt to changing circumstances
  • self-medicating through alcohol and prescription drug use
  • increased conflict and hostility among those who are targeted

Individuals who have had similar experiences at work are naturally curious about the things they can do to cope with bully bosses. The question that they will ask is: How can I discourage my boss from continuing to bully me? To answer that question, it is useful to know that researchers have found that bullies choose their targets strategically. Specifically, bullies tend to target individuals who come across as weak, vulnerable and unable to defend themselves. Individuals who find themselves targets of bully bosses are therefore advised to make themselves unattractive marks. They can do this by:

  • presenting themselves as confident, without being antagonistic
  • cultivating an image of competence
  • aligning with others who have power and influence (i.e., competent and trustworthy peers and superiors)

Of course, many of these solutions may be difficult for bullied employees. After all, the consequences of bullying include diminished self-confidence and a compromised ability to perform at one’s maximum potential. Moreover, even if the bullied can use these solutions, none of them come with a guarantee. Although bullies tend to target the seemingly vulnerable, some are not that discriminating, and no counter-measures may be effective. If your boss shows no signs of letting up, and your human resources department or a higher-level manager seem unwilling to intervene in a meaningful way, seek alternative employment. Remember Joe’s story. It took him eight months to decide that enough was enough and he paid dearly for that because his work stress made things stressful for his life away from work.

If your current boss is a bully and you would like to share your story, please use the following link to write to Lead Read Today.

[1] Tepper, B. J., Simon, L., & Park, H. (2017). Abusive Supervision. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior.

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