How to Tame a Bully Boss

How does one tame a bully boss? Let us suppose that you are six months into a new job with a new boss. Unfortunately and to your utter and deep dismay, you realize that the new boss is an abusive jackass. They belittle you or your colleagues. They slam doors. They throw papers. They use foul language towards you. They invade your personal space.

How do you interact with them to get better treatment? How do you phrase questions or requests to discourage an explosion from them and yet still get crap done at work? Do you use catnip? Fling raw meat in their direction? Bring them flowers or chocolate? Shower them with effusive praise and adulation? 

Much of my research focuses on toxic workplaces. So, I get this question quite frequently. The answer to all of the above questions is you don’t. I loathe being the bearer of bad news. However, I am 110 percent committed to telling you the truth. Always. Even when it makes you wince. Even when it’s something you do not want to hear. Even when hearing it makes that spot in the middle of your chest ache or tighten up. Even when it fills you with a sense of dread. None of the above tactics will improve how abusive bosses behave. The latter one about praise and adulation will likely just encourage a bully boss’s bad behavior.

Despite how much you strategize, try to get into the boss’s head or psyche, to be empathetic and understand them, you are unlikely to be successful. Abusive bosses rarely change. You can spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and attention trying to motivate them to behave better towards you and maybe even towards your colleagues. Those efforts are generally futile. And those are efforts that could probably be more fruitful if applied elsewhere.

In particular, a highly narcissistic boss’s behavior is unlikely to change, in part because the boss does not view their behavior as problematic or abusive. Thus, executive coaching or education typically falls on deaf ears and is unlikely to be useful in reforming abusive bosses. A bully boss may act reformed for a short period of time but the abusive behavior is sure to return.

Plan Your Escape

First and foremost, when you recognize that you report to an abusive boss, you start to methodically plan your escape. To plan your liberation. To chart a path towards freedom from someone whose behavior is likely to have ill effects on both your mental and physical well-being. We have a saying in organizational research, “People don’t quit jobs. They quit bosses.” More than half the time, when someone quits a job, they are quitting not because they dislike the job or it is not a good fit. They are quitting to escape a bad boss.

One option is to explore your options for staying in the organization but moving to a different team, project, or division with a different leader, preferably one who does not have a reputation for being abusive. You may have to bide your time until the right opportunity or fit comes along, so you may need to think about how long you are willing to wait. Another approach is to start networking with other groups that might be a good fit and quietly put out feelers for upcoming vacancies that may interest you. Last, if moving within the organization is not feasible or even an option, the harsh reality is that it may be time to start looking for another employer. I do not propose that lightly. Quite often, looking for another job can be a full-time job in and of itself. Be mindful, though, that the long-term negative effects of working for an abusive boss may greatly outweigh the time, attention, and energy you put toward extricating yourself from an abusive work situation.

The flip side of this coin is that some people are not in a position to quit or leave the organization for a myriad of reasons. The economy sucks and thus the job market is awful. You are concerned that if you changed organizations, you would have to take a pay cut, perhaps a substantial one. The benefits at your current organization are outstanding or fulfill some unique needs you have, such as stellar health insurance or a generous parental leave policy. When quitting is not an option, what can you do?

Until You Can Leave

Do not feed the beast. I repeat – do not feed the beast. Too often, when people have to deal with bullies at work, they kiss up to them. Or they flatter them. They do favors for them. They stroke the bully’s ego. Some do this to generally curry favor with a boss, whether the boss is a bully or not. The problem with behaving this way with a bully boss is that it often rewards their abusive behavior. 

As discussed in my last post, “Beware the Bully Boss,” bully bosses are more likely to be narcissistic. Those with an overdose of narcissism demonstrate an overwhelming sense of entitlement (e.g., to be admired, to be in control, to be obeyed, to be right all the damn time). They also tend to lack empathy and to behave in profoundly selfish or self-centered ways. 

This means that with a highly narcissistic and abusive boss, when we use flattery, kiss up and showering the bully with praise, we are feeding their fragile ego. However, satiating that ego does not last long. Sucking up to a bully boss can be effective for limiting their abuse in the short-term. However, sucking up is not a long-term solution. This is because while narcissists come across with grandiose self-importance and superiority, their egos are actually excruciatingly delicate, and they struggle with feelings of inferiority. Thus, ingratiating oneself to an abusive and probably narcissistic boss will yield fleeting results at best. Use it in an emergency situation, not as your go-to tactic. Again, do not feed the beast if you can avoid it.

Now, here’s the kicker: research suggests that when an abused subordinate goes silent based on fear (and not on something else, such as being disengaged from work or because they think that engaging in silence is in the best interests of the organization), it actually leads to more abuse down the road. In other words, using silence as a defense against abuse and to reduce one’s fear of a future abusive incident may actually lead to more abuse.

Should You Speak Up?

So, what is one to do in this apparent damned-if-you-do (speak up via sucking up) and damned-if-you-don’t (by going silent) situation? There are several factors to consider in making that decision. First, consider the power differential between you and your supervisor. If the power differential appears relatively limited or small, speaking up to your boss about how their behavior affects you and your performance at work may be worthwhile and worth the risk (and it will be a risk). 

For example, some bosses are simply clueless about their behavior. If your boss engages in abusive behavior not as a pattern of behavior or a go-to way of interacting, but every now and then, you might consider this approach. This is more likely to work if your boss seems to have some level of humility and is a more secure person. If your boss appears to lack any humility (e.g., takes credit for anything good that happens in the organization and is unwilling to accept any responsibility when things go poorly), then this approach may not be worth the risk.

Second, what is the relative power of the bully boss within the organization? Do they seem to have unfettered power to act in your organization? Do they bring in a lot of revenue? While research on bullies at work indicates that they do much more harm than good to the organization and its people (even if they are a top producer!) numerous organizations continue to keep these individuals around because they do not know what the research says or are too afraid of the implications of getting rid of them. If your abusive boss appears to wield power that has no bounds, speaking up will probably only yield retaliation.

Third, do you have a sense whether your organization cares about abusive behavior that occurs within its borders? Does it seem to take action to discourage or limit workplace abuse? If you can say “yes” to these questions, start documenting your boss’s behavior—the who, what, where, and how. Who was present to witness or hear the abusive behaviors? What exactly did your boss say or do that you believe was abusive or bullying? Where did this take place? What was the date and time? Write these details down as soon as you can to capture everything accurately. This is also where recording conversations that you think may be problematic may be a wise idea; just make sure you check the laws in your state first. For instance, in Utah, where I live now, you can record a conversation as long as at least one of the parties involved knows the recording is being made. Documenting what is occuring can be critical if you decide to raise the issue with your HR department or other leadership body.

How to Buffer the Effects of a Bully Boss

Turning to coworkers or team members for support is one way to help protect your mental, emotional, and physical well-being until you can escape a bully boss. Colleagues who are effective at providing social support, such as helping you solve problems and listening with empathy and understanding, can decrease the effect of abuse on your work-related satisfaction and anxiety

Another option to help keep a bully boss’s behavior from undermining you is to practice mindfulness. Engaging in mindfulness decreases the likelihood that an abusive boss will negatively affect your creativity and your confidence in yourself while at work. Mindfulness refers to the level of awareness and attention you bring to the present moment without judging yourself or reacting emotionally. By staying in the moment and regulating your thoughts and emotions about the present moment, mindfulness can help you separate the “self” as well as the ego from the unpleasant event you have just experienced. Further, mindfulness can help you stop ruminating about an abusive experience at work and instead equip you to either stop the abuse or get out of the abusive work relationship. 

I will be the first to admit that practicing mindfulness is hard. I’ve been practicing it since my divorce in 2016 and still have a difficult time making time for it. However, when the stress of life feels overwhelming, returning to mindfulness practice can help center the mind and calm the body. There are a number of meditation or mindfulness apps out there. A popular one is Headspace and there are some sections of it that you can use for free or as a trial run.

Bottom line: Bully bosses rarely change. Plan your escape. Until you can leave, take steps to summon resources within yourself and from your friends and colleagues to help you manage until you can escape.

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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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