In Colleen McCullough’s historical fiction novel, Fortune’s Favorites, she describes a scene in the ancient Roman senate when the dictator, Sulla, asked for discussion of his proposal. Ofella spoke up in opposition to Sulla’s plans. Without saying a word, Sulla motioned to his henchmen waiting at the doors. They carried Ofella out to the courtyard and sliced off his head. Sulla turned back to the senate and asked, “Are there any other comments?” Nope. All were in favor.
Few bully bosses immediately kill others that overtly. Their autocratic behavior is (usually) a bit more subtle. Some can spout the latest management book leader-speak. Some bosses appear to invite discussion on a course of action that he or she has already decided on. You’d better agree.
There’s a big problem with bad and bullying bosses. Of the many self-assessments on our site, Is Your Boss a Bully? is the most completed by a very wide margin. Most scoring puts the boss in the Serious and Extreme Bullying categories.
A 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey reports that 79.3 million workers are affected by workplace bullying. 2/3 of that bullying is by bosses. 43% of remote workers report being bullied in meetings and by e-mail.
Is Your Boss a Bully or Just a Bad Boss?
There can be a very fine line between a bad boss and a bully boss. Bad bosses are often good people doing a bad job. Bully bosses usually have complex psychological issues or badly twisted personal values.
Sometimes ineffective leaders aren’t bullies, but their extremely weak leadership fosters a poisonous or bullying workplace by failing to deal with conflict or not addressing dysfunctional team dynamics.
Are you working for a bully boss? You likely won’t have your head sliced off, but it can be deadly. If you’ve ever said, “My boss makes me sick!” you could be right. Studies show people stressed out by bad bosses have higher rates of sickness, heart attacks, injuries, and death. Click here to rate your boss’s behavior, and some suggested responses to handle them.
A Bad Boss Isn’t Your Fault: Don’t Be a Victim
Sometimes people suffering abuse think it’s their fault; they brought it on themselves in some way. Rarely is that true. Bullies are often accomplished manipulators.
This poisonous environment is likely hurting your mental/physical health and perhaps your home/personal relationships. Research shows a toxic boss might occasionally make nice, or fake nice, but is highly unlikely to change — and more likely to get worse.
No job is worth ongoing abuse. Get away from this boss and get your life back. You may need to document the abuse and get legal advice. Or talk through your options with a mentor, close friend/partner, coach, or counsellor. Don’t make impulsive, emotional decisions you might regret.
Lead Up: Strategies for Managing Your Manager
Strong leaders don’t allow themselves to be victims of a bad boss. You may have lost the “boss lottery” and, through no fault of your own, end up reporting to an ineffective manager.
You may not have chosen your boss, but you can choose how to respond:
- Fire a bully boss — if these approaches don’t work and your boss is crossing the line from bad to bullying leadership, don’t be a victim or enabler.
- Strengthen your credibility and relationship — deliver your commitments, take initiative, look for solutions, know what keeps your boss up at night, and leverage your boss’ strengths.
- Check your timing and approach — tailor your approach to using facts or feelings, catch the waves of restructuring or shifting priorities, and manage the emotional climate.
- Don’t wait, initiate — clarify poor direction he or she might be providing, regularly check expectations and results, and frame discussions within organizational strategies.
- Speak up — give (honest) positive feedback, play to his or her strengths, and provide feedback on his or her negative behavior with data or observations without assuming intent, meaning, or drawing conclusions.
You’ll find more upward leadership strategies at Upward Leadership: 7 Tactics to Influence Your Boss, Boss Leadership Tips and Techniques, tips for upward leadership, and Bad Boss: Learn How to Manage Your Manager.
Are You “That Boss?”
Are you a boss making life miserable for everyone on your team? Do people have to tip-toe around you and avoid speaking their truth? How do you know? Are you me-deep in fooling yourself? If you were promoted because of your technical expertise, you might be one of those bright professionals who fall into the techno-manager trap.
It’s easy to see bad or bullying leadership in others. It’s tougher to recognize our leadership shortfalls. As American social psychologist, professor, and author, Jonathan Haidt, said, “we judge others by their behavior, but we think we have special information about ourselves — we know what we are ‘really like’ inside, so we can easily find ways to explain away our selfish acts and cling to the illusion that we are better than others.”
Less effective leaders often have deadly blind spots that cause them to become sincere hypocrites. They blithely become “that boss.”
The Workplace Bullying Institute notes, “abuse at work is the only form of abuse in America that is not yet taboo. All other forms have been condemned — abuse of children, spouses, partners — while bullying at work is still considered a normal, inevitable, or even a necessary business practice.”
Are you the victim, or even the enabler of, a bad or bullying boss? What kind of boss are you? Are you growing horns? How do you know?