Victoria Ring had a bully boss when she was working as a paralegal at a bankruptcy law firm in Ohio early in her career.
“I would be interviewing one of our clients who was in debt and he would stand outside to door listening to us,” she recalled. “As soon as I opened the door he would shout, “Why did you go and screw everything up?’ right in front of the client. I would feel like the lowest level person in the world.”
Despite the abuse, the tyrannical manager turned out to be one of the best bosses she’s ever had.
“He was extremely brilliant and knew every loophole in the law,” she explained. And he helped foster her passion for bankruptcy law, taught her to hone her craft and even helped her get a job in an Ohio bankruptcy court because people in the legal community knew if she could work for that boss she could work for anyone.
Ring, who launched her own business (Colorado Bankruptcy Training) this year in Colorado Springs, only lasted about nine months with the bully boss, leaving after he had a fist fight in the office with his brother who was also a partner at the law firm. But looking back, she said, the manager was pivotal in her career trajectory.
With all the negative press bullies are getting lately, it’s hard to believe that anyone can actually benefit from having to deal with one as their boss. But sometimes it’s the hardest-to-deal-with managers who turn out to teach you the most, and they may actually help you climb the ladder of success.
The question is, how do you know if your tough boss actually has some redeeming qualities and isn’t just a bully?
“The line between tough boss and bully boss is not clear for most people — bosses and employees alike,” said Judith Glaser author of “The DNA Of Leadership.” Making the distinction, she added, is even harder when times are tough and the pressure is on to perform.
“When people are interviewed about the boss who impacted them most,” she continued, “it was generally someone who was both candid and caring, someone who pushed them to succeed or achieve. So understanding where the line is between bully and effective leadership is vital.”
While most of us want to be treated fairly and with respect at all times, many of us see the benefits of having tough guy or gal as a boss.
In a study by Adecco Staffing U.S., employees were asked whom they deemed the best boss among a host of famous people. While touchy feely Oprah and soft-spoken President Obama topped the list, No. 3 was Donald Trump of “you’re fired” Apprentice fame. But Martha Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sarah Palin — all three tough cookies — weren’t far behind.
“Power and success are very attractive qualities,” said Tracy Whitaker, director of the Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice, National Association of Social Workers, who has researched workplace bullying. “People see Donald Trump and they see success, but people have to understand that tough and demanding is different than unreasonable and arbitrary.”
Employees want to be mentored by the best and challenged and pushed to excel, she continued, but you don’t want to be confused, disrespected and humiliated at work.
While she acknowledges that some workers can take some abuse and find the good in a dysfunctional worker-manager relationship, others may see their self esteem and confidence suffer as a result. Feeling those things, she added, isn’t worth it for yourself or your career in the end, even if the boss was an expert at her or his profession.
But you may benefit from getting a bit of a tougher skin.
Catherine Mattice, president of Civility Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in eliminating workplace bullying, said employees can learn from a bully boss, but not if they allow themselves to feel persecuted.
“Unfortunately many people will take on a victim mentality and find themselves feeling that they have no options,” she said. “They will not learn from the experience. Those that choose to take the situation on as a challenge will find they are capable of overcoming, and will learn to become more assertive, more positive, and more able to take on the world.”
The key is figuring out whether your boss is just tough, or just a useless big meanie.
“The difference between a stern [person] and a bully boss lies in their intentions,” said Srini Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons To Overcome Fear.”
“A stern boss is assertive; a bully boss aggressive,” he said. “A stern boss takes his or her position for the good of a company or yourself; a bully boss bullies to cover up their own lack of self esteem. A stern boss is less likely to use contingencies than a bully boss. A bully boss is more likely to be insensitive to humiliation.”
Gayle Gregory, co founder of The Institute of Bully Free Living, offers a list of “prohibited bullying” behaviors:
- Verbal bullying: slandering, ridiculing or maligning a person or his/her family; persistent name calling which is hurtful, insulting or humiliating; using a person as butt of jokes; abusive and offensive remarks.
- Physical bullying: pushing; shoving; kicking; poking; tripping; assault, or threat of physical assault; damage to a person’s work area or property.
- Gesture: Bullying: non-verbal threatening gestures and glances which can convey threatening messages.
- Exclusion: socially or physically excluding or disregarding a person in work-related activities.
In the end, you’ll have to weigh your boss’ behavior with what you think you can get out of the relationship and how much your psyche can handle.
During her first public relations job after getting out of graduate school in 2006, Kelly Diedring Harris from Tampa, Fla., said she worked for a “total bitch.”
“She made employees cry, she got drunk at Christmas parties and embarrassed everyone, she cussed employees out in front of the entire office, she made rude, crude and inappropriate jokes to employees and clients and belittled everyone in her path,” Harris recalled.
The two-year experience almost killed her.
But, she confessed, “I wouldn’t be where I am today, a success independent public relations consultant, if it weren’t for her” because the manager didn’t coddle her and forced her to handle difficult situations.
“She was psycho but knew her stuff,” she said.