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When the boss is a bully: How to cope

Sarah Thurston was so excited at the prospect of getting her dream job as marketing manager for a Pennsylvania theater company that she didn’t pay attention to the warning signs about her new boss. It took about a week before it became clear. Her boss was a yeller and a bully. Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

Sarah Thurston was so excited at the prospect of getting her dream job as marketing manager for a Pennsylvania theater company that she didn’t pay attention to the warning signs about her new boss.

When she interviewed with her future boss she noticed that her demeanor was a bit terse but brushed that off as an interviewer just being tough on an interviewee. And Thurston failed to inquire why the person who had the position before left after only six months on the job.

It took about a week before it all became clear. Her boss was a yeller and a bully.

“If I came to her with any question, she’d yell, ‘Why are you wasting my time? Why are you asking me this?’” Thurston recalls. And a draft of a press release she wrote that had two minor errors ended up getting thrown on her desk by the snippy boss who yelled loudly in the small office where everyone could hear: “What is this?!”

On average, the boss yelled about twice a week. Thurston’s colleagues tried to reassure her that everyone in the office got the same crummy treatment, but the constant berating was getting to her. She couldn’t sleep, and she’d cry when she got home following particularly severe outbursts.

After about a month, she confronted her boss about the yelling, and was met with surprise from her supervisor, who offered apologies and promised she’d stop the practice. Alas, that only created more tension. Her boss would start to yell, stop herself and then say, sarcastically: “I’m sorry — was that not sweet enough for you?”

There are many workers in the same boat who have had to deal with a short-fused manager, leaving them to wonder what they ever did to deserve this. A survey of more than 60,000 people conducted by and Elle magazine found that 16 percent had bosses they considered bullies, 18 percent said their bosses were rude, 17 percent had managers that were short tempered, and about 7 percent said their bosses yelled frequently.

So why, in this supposedly civil day and age, are some men and women in power still channeling Julius Caesar in the workplace?

“Most bosses are still into the Industrial Age mind-set of control,” explains Stephen R. Covey, the author of the best-seller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Even though, he adds, our economy has moved into the information knowledge age that requires managers to “unleash the talent” of their employees and allow them more control, some bosses just can’t hand over any power and continue to micromanage. This causes managers to stress out, he says, and they take it out on everyone else.

“Management means control. Leadership means release,” and good managers know it, Covey stresses.

If you’re one of the unfortunates whose boss hasn’t come to terms with the new paradigm, there are things you can do besides stabbing the dictator, Caesar’s fate.

Turn the leadership tables on your boss, says Covey. “Take the initiative and think through what ... his problems are. What are his concerns? What is he trying to accomplish? Then, when emotions are not high present him with an empowerment model.”

Basically, offer your boss a detailed plan of action where you could pick up certain assignments or functions that will make his or her life easier. You should frame it in a way that you’ll both be looking at how it succeeds. If it does he or she will develop confidence in you and your abilities, Covey says. “As his confidence in you comes up, the bullying will become much less,” he says.

It might be tough to take that first step and approach your boss, but Covey says you need to take the initiative and have courage. “It’s not about the absence of fear but the awareness something else is more important.”

For some employees who work for bullies, acceptance might also be an option, says Gini Graham Scott, author of “A Survival Guide to Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-Stabbers, and Other Managers from Hell.”

There might be some companies, she says, where people are just more intense and emotional because of cultural differences. “If you're part of a culture and everyone yells at everyone you have to learn to accept that, or maybe the job is not right for you,” she explains.

And don’t take it personally. “I think some women can be more sensitive and personalize these things, where men can have a stiffer upper lip. They all yell at each other and then go out and have a drink,” Graham Scott adds.

Linda Barkdoll, Coordinator of the Human Resources Development graduate program at McDaniel College, offers some tips when you’re caught up in a boss’ fury:

  • Do not escalate the boss's ill humor by being argumentative, or shouting back.
  • Do not be insubordinate.
  • If possible, try to ask questions to clarify what the boss's concern is.
  • Use a calm and quiet voice when speaking to the boss. It can have a de-escalating, calming effect.
  • Remember you have to work with/for this person, so try to figure out what the triggers are. If it is something you are doing, try not to.
  • If your boss has moments of sanity, try to talk with him/her regarding the effect the shouting and verbal abuse has on you and on your work. Keep the focus of your comments on the boss's behavior and its effects, not on the boss personally.
  • If you are ever concerned for your safety, remove yourself from the boss's presence.
  • If the situation is unbearable, or the boss is hopeless, consider finding another job. Your physical and mental health should not be sacrificed to keep the boss happy.

And if you can’t defuse the situation, Barkdoll adds, you can go to HR, complain to your boss’ boss, file an EEOC complaint if you think it’s warranted, or go to a union rep if your company has a union.

Some of the things you should never do, adds Covey, are wallow in the pain a bully boss causes or gossip with co-workers about how bad he or she is.

“It’s not morally right to become a judge of someone else. It’s like a cancer, people full of complaining and criticizing. It begins to affect the body, affect relationships with loved ones,” he says.

And you can find comfort in the fact that many employees before you have suffered under a workplace tyrant and survived to go onto greatness. In my book, “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office” almost every one of the 55 CEOs I interviewed said they had a bad boss in their past.

William Novelli, the CEO of AARP, the membership organization for older Americans, told me he once had a boss that used fear and intimidation, but realized later, “I probably learned more from him than any other boss, but I don’t think you want to manage the way he did.”

As for Sarah Thurston, she left after only four months with the yeller. In hindsight, she says, “I think a good question to ask anyone that’s interviewing you is, ‘How do you deal with conflict at work?’ Might be interesting to hear their response.”