How Bully Bosses Roll

“You’re an idiot.”  “How can you be so stupid?” “I’m in charge. You work for me! If you can’t work for me, then you resign!” “You’re worthless.” Slamming doors. Throwing things. Pounding the desk or conference room table in anger. Belittling a subordinate in front of others or even in private. Rolling their eyes at a subordinate or colleague. Yelling in someone’s face or otherwise invading their personal space during a tantrum. Cutting you off mid-sentence or talking over you.

One prime example of a bully boss is from the 1994 movie Swimming with Sharks. Kevin Spacey plays Buddy Ackerman, a media model who regularly abuses his assistant, Guy, played by Frank Whaley. In one scene, Buddy holds up a work schedule to Guy and says, “You see this? This means more to the office than you. And yet, do I hear any complaints when I do this!? (throws schedule at Guy). These pencils, more important! These pens, more important! These paper clips, more important! You miserable little crybaby! You don’t like it here, leave! There are thousands of people who would kill for your spot, who would kill for the opportunity to be here! I could spit and hit somebody who could do this job better than you!” Bully bosses are famous — or infamous — for yelling, throwing things and treating their people as though they have no value. They treat people as though they are expendable because in the abusive boss’s mind, they are.

Most of us have worked for a bully boss or had a close family member or friend who has worked for one of these assholes. Yes, that is an indelicate word I just used there. It is also a most appropriate one as noted in the book, “The No Asshole Rule”. You know you report to a bully boss when you leave most interactions with them feeling worse than before the interaction and feeling bad about yourself and your worth as a person. You may feel stressed or anxious. You may wish for the floor to swallow you up. You cannot wait to escape their overbearing presence and manipulative efforts.

What Drives the Bully Boss?

Workplace bullies often demonstrate a desire to intimidate and control those around them. It is generally unacceptable to try to intimidate or control one’s own boss, so bully bosses do so with those who have less power than the bully does — with their subordinates. Those who aim to control others often do so because they are unsuccessful in controlling themselves. Those who are in control of their own emotions and behavior have little need to control others. They already hold the keys to happiness and success in their own hands.

Bully bosses are often highly narcissistic. Those with an overdose of narcissism demonstrate extreme entitlement (e.g., to be admired, to be in control, to be obeyed), lack empathy, and tend to behave in extremely selfish or self-centered ways. It has become a popular word to throw around, especially since the 2016 United States presidential election of a highly narcissistic billionaire. We all exhibit some level of narcissism, as it helps protect us from being taken advantage of by others and helps us think well of ourselves. However, too much narcissism and things go poorly. Individuals high in narcissism display grandiosity and an overabundance of self-importance, lack empathy, require excessive admiration or adoration, tend to exploit those around them, and hold feelings of superiority and an unreasonable sense of entitlement. 

While the entitlement and grandiosity of narcissism might suggest that these individuals think a lot of themselves, a growing body of research suggests it is often just the opposite. Despite their outward self-confidence, narcissists often struggle with profound feelings of inferiority. They have massive egos, but those egos are ridiculously fragile. These feelings of inferiority motivate narcissists to be quite charming and engaging while also demonstrating vision and passion. This often leads to them landing leadership roles at work. Narcissists are also likely to perceive enemies where none actually exist. Thus, they see threats where none exist. This makes them toxic, if not downright dangerous, as a leader. 

Red Flags

Abusive bosses tend to “kiss up and kick down.” Outsiders often see them as magnanimous leaders who are easy to get along with and generous with their praise. However, those under these leaders are targets of insults, aggression, and hostility, especially when the boss’s ego is threatened. Bully bosses suck up and are effusive with those who can do something for the bully. Those who stroke the bully’s ego or make them feel important and powerful. For those who can do nothing for the bully? Abuse, aggression, and mockery are the norm.

Thus, one red flag of a potential bully boss is how they treat those who report to them or who they may consider to be in a “lesser” position. The next time you’re interviewing for a new job or considering taking on a new business partner, pay close attention to how the person interacts with the waitstaff at a restaurant. Is the person dismissive when the waitstaff come to the table? Are they short with them? Do they interact with the staff as though they have limited value? Are they impatient or overly critical? 

Perceived power may also make a leader or manager more likely to abuse their people. This is particularly true of leaders who exhibit a higher level of narcissism. This is in part because those with greater narcissism are more likely to allow their emotions to influence their behavior. In other words, they may perceive a threat to their ego where none exists and lash out in seemingly uncontrollable anger. Broadly, those with greater power find themselves in a position to behave however they damn well choose based on their emotions at any given moment. Leaders with greater power are also more likely to engage in self-serving and dehumanizing behavior. Unchecked power often lies at the heart of the motivation and ability to be a bully boss, especially when the organization fails to limit such abuse or actively or passively rewards it.

Impact on the Bullied

Some people might think that having a bully boss is no big deal. However, bully bosses cost organizations an estimated $23.8 billion annually in employee healthcare costs, work absences, and reduced productivity at work. So what if the boss shouts at you, belittles you, or otherwise treats you as if you are worthless or of little value? Some might say, “Just ignore it and focus on something else. You know you have value, so what does it matter if the boss treats you that way? He/she does that to everyone.” 

Research overwhelmingly indicates that it does matter. It matters a lot. Those who have an abusive boss experience more anxiety, depression, burnout, and insomnia compared to those whose boss does not bully them. They also suffer from lowered self-esteem or self-worth in the time frame immediately following a boss’s abuse, even if their self-esteem is normally and in other situations relatively high, and those effects are greater for women than for men. More disturbingly, a study by the US Army found that those who committed suicide were more likely to have at least one abusive boss. In other words, being abused by a boss is not something we can “leave at the office.” Nor is it something we easily shrug off, even those of us with a healthy dose of self-esteem.

Having an abusive boss also impacts one’s life outside of work, including the family unit. According to my research with colleagues, those with an abusive boss report less satisfaction with their family life, and their spouses report more tension in the marital relationship and a reduction in the family members’ ability to work well together. In another study, we found that being abused by a boss leads to subordinates feeling emotionally exhausted, which then results in their work interfering with their family life once they return home. Further, those who are abused by a boss are likely to take their frustration out on family members. To cope, those who are abused at work often increase their use of alcohol, which over an extended period of time can lead to problem drinking and thus other health problems.

When You’re Not The One Being Bullied

A friend of mine once worked for a bully. When she was about six or seven months pregnant, she found herself in the hospital for several days. She was so stressed by the abusive boss’s actions that the baby was in distress. The kicker or shocker there? My friend was NOT a direct target of her boss’s abuse. She was simply a bystander. She witnessed the abuse of her colleagues by her abusive boss. Researchers call this vicarious abuse. Just witnessing her colleagues being yelled at, belittled and devalued was so distressing that it undermined her mental and physical health in a way that put her pregnancy at risk. Research on the effects of vicarious abuse on bystanders indicates that witnessing the abuse of others increases a bystander’s frustration at work and also the likelihood that the bystander will subsequently abuse a coworker. Monkey see, monkey do.

Bottom line: Don’t let someone tell you that having an abusive boss is just par for the course or no big deal. They are found in many workplaces but not all of them. The harm they cause to both people and organizations outweighs the revenue or other value they may bring in. 

Next week: What to do if you have a Bully Boss?

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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