Surviving a Bully Boss

Apparently, readers have a keen interest in understanding how they can survive a bully boss until they can quit that boss. Dealing with and working for an abusive boss is not a situation to take lightly. Until you can leave, you need to develop a strategic plan for how you won’t hopefully just survive, but find a way to thrive until one of two things happens – either you can leave or your bully boss leaves.

Your Future Self

Ask yourself what your Future Self would have you do? Who or what is your Future Self? Your Future Self is you forecasted into the future. That Future Self could be you tomorrow morning. Or it could be you a year from now or five years from now. What would your Future Self want you to do? What would make your Future Self healthiest and happiest over the long haul?

Author Gretchen Rubin talks about being kind to our Future selves. For me, that means prepping the coffee pot the night before so that as soon as my feet hit the floor the next morning, there will be piping hot java in my cup within about 30 seconds. (Yes, I love, love my morning coffee!). I also consider my Future Self and how I can be kind to her when I decide which colleagues or coauthors I want to work with on new research. I have amazing coauthors but every once in a while we work with someone who makes the process less enjoyable and less collaborative. My intellectual brain says, “Oh, but that person is so productive!” Yes, and maybe they are productive because they tend to slack or take credit where very little credit is due. Being kind to my Future Self means I work with people who are not just brilliant and productive. Instead, I also aim to work with people who are enjoyable to work with because they are humble, have a strong work ethic, and are equal collaborators.

So, what would your Future Self suggest to you about dealing with that bully boss you cannot yet escape from?  How can you be kind to yourself tomorrow or next week in how you interact or engage with your work life and with that boss? Here are a few concrete ways to think about it.

Your Manifesto

Write your manifesto about how you’ll survive (perhaps even thrive) at work until you can liberate yourself from the bully boss. Some may call this a strategic plan. I think the word manifesto is much more inspiring! I developed one of these when I had an abusive boss. It really helped me remember how to respond and deal with the jerk when he was abusive. My flooded brain couldn’t always remember on its own. Having a written manifesto about how I could protect my physical and mental wellbeing was critical for buffering the effects of his abuse.

For your manifesto, consider what your mission statement could be for how you will manage to not just survive, but thrive, at work until you can escape. We tend to live up to what we write down. Thus, I want you to write down a plan of action for this goal. Let’s consider the actions that may go into that manifesto.

Create Pyschological Distance

Psychological distance is the cognitive (i.e., mental) separation between ourselves and a situation, event, or person. It helps us gain space between ourselves and our environment or surroundings. One way to think about the act of psychological distancing is that it allows us to step back from a situation to get perspective so that we are not ruled or dominated by it. It means getting mental and often emotional distance from a challenging situation or problem so that you can see it more clearly. Getting psychological distance from an abusive boss can be deeply challenging but worth the effort. Each of the following four strategies may help you gain some psychological distance from your boss or in other problematic relationships.

Explore Remote Work

While your boss can still call you up to berate you over a work issue, some evidence suggests that remote workers, even during COVID, experience less abuse from a boss compared to those at the work site. If you’re working remotely, a boss can’t slam a door, pound the table, yell in your face or otherwise invade your personal space, or throw papers at you. For instance, colleagues and I surveyed remote workers and found a near zero level of abuse from their superiors – an average of 1.1 on a scale where 1=never experience abuse from my boss to 5=I experience abuse from my boss every day. Comparatively, in the broader working population, reports of an abusive boss typically range from 1.5-3. Thus, remote work, even if only a few days of the week, may offer a respite from a bully.

There are numerous work roles where working remotely is not feasible so this possibility is not on the table for everyone. For those who must make the trek to their workplace, the next tip may be helpful to you.

Make Your Commute Do Double Duty

Use your commute from work to home to shift mental and emotional gears. This may be a five-minute commute by car or foot. Or it could be an hour-long commute by bus, subway or car sitting in rush hour traffic. The idea is to use that time and space to get out of work mode and into non-work mode. Start mentally shifting from thinking about work challenges, people and events, to thinking about whatever there is outside of your work life that makes you smile or feel like you can breathe deeply without a 50-pound dumbbell sitting on your shoulders. Get out of your work headspace. If it was a particularly stressful day, take some deep belly breaths while thinking about the (hopefully) more relaxing and supportive environment at home. That could be thinking about a partner, children, pets or a garden you enjoy tending to.

Control Your Thoughts

One of the pervasive struggles with having an abusive boss is that our minds go to the bully even when we’re not at work. We ruminate on what the bully said or did. Our brains churn about how unfair that treatment is and probably how helpless we feel to avoid future abuse. We feel trapped by the situation. That can lead us to feeling trapped by our thoughts.

I’m not going to suggest that you not think about the bully boss when you’re away from work.  Trying not to think about something or someone doesn’t work! Instead, decide what you are going to think about when thoughts of your abusive boss do come to mind, especially when you’re away from work. In other words, when you are not at work or in your work role (perhaps you work from home), start to build some self-awareness when your abusive boss comes to mind. Catch yourself giving that bully boss your time, energy and attention when you’re not in work mode. Then decide what you’re going to think about instead. 

We must determine what we are going to shift our minds, thoughts and feelings to when thoughts or ruminations about a toxic leader come to mind. Maybe you’ll think about something work related that is positive, like a coworker who has taught you a lot or shown interest in your life beyond work. Or you may decide to shift your mind to something outside of work such as a weekend meet up with a friend, a meal you’re excited to prepare later in the week, or an upcoming leisure trip you plan to take. The key is to have pre-decided what you’re going to focus on when thoughts of your bully boss invade your brain.

Our thoughts often feed our emotions and vice versa, until a vicious cycle develops. Working mindfully to control your thoughts may be an important step in limiting a bully boss’s negative effects on your life beyond the workplace.

Seize Control

No, I don’t mean seize control of your boss. But boy, wouldn’t that be fun. Just to rewire their brain or behavior to not act like a jackass for a few months would be amazing, wouldn’t it?  

What I mean by seizing control is that you should aim to seize control where you can. As noted above, many who work for a bully boss feel a loss of control at work. They feel helpless. They don’t know when or where the next abusive incident may happen. They may feel like they must walk on eggshells to avoid further abuse. Even then, they don’t know if those counter measures will actually succeed. To combat some of these feelings and experience, seek out activities or endeavors that give you a sense of control over your life and your feelings. Perceived control relates to improved life satisfaction and general health. Do things that make you feel in control to reduce the negative impact that having an abusive boss can have on your life.

Be advised that there is a limit to this tactic. That limit often comes where another person’s boundaries start. If your boss is a controlling bully at work, you should not expect to go home and control your partner or kids in order to feel in control. Expecting to control those around you is a slippery slope to you turning into a bully – you’d just be a bully at home. The goal is not to be a control freak at home to feel better about the helplessness that you feel at work. The goal is to feed your sense of well-being by finding appropriate ways of controlling yourself. Some examples: engaging in the form of exercise that makes you feel powerful, cleaning your home, getting rid of clothes you don’t like or need anymore, cooking a meal that makes your tummy happy, planning a weekend evening out with friends. The list is endless. 

Consider the most unhappy people you know. They are probably people who don’t seem to have control of themselves, their decisions, and thus their lives. Your bully boss is probably one of them. Controlling ourselves increases our happiness. When we control ourselves, we feel more in charge of our outcomes and lives. 

Bottom line: There are various strategies you can use to buffer the effects of a bully boss until you can quit her or him. Try them all to see what works for you and your situation. You are worth the time and the effort! 

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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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