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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?

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 treatment.” 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 bullying.

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.

By Daniel Elash, a writer and a business consultant.

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