When the Boss is the Bully

When the Boss is the Bully

“What were you thinking?! You knew we needed this report to be filed! I told you a million times how important this is. Don’t you listen to anything I say! Now look at the mess you’ve caused- again!”

This speech was delivered to Arminta by her boss during a department meeting.

Red-faced, hot, and shaken, Arminta mumbled something and sat frozen until the meeting was over.

Later, in telling the story, she fumed over this embarrassing incident and her failure to respond.

“I should have told him what really happened! And I need to let him know that I won’t take that kind of talk! I should have told him off – right?”


Arminta’s situation is all too common, and her desire to respond forcefully is understandable. But a forceful, angry response is not helpful, and could be harmful. Here’s why:

– In this moment, Arminta’s emotions are anger, frustration, and embarrassment and the words that express these emotions will not serve her well.

– Equally important is her boss’s emotional state. He is clearly feeling frustration and anger, and these emotions will prevent him from processing anything he hears. Contrary to Arminta’s hope, an angry response from her will not cause him to apologize, back down, realize the effect of his bullying, or to do anything other than possibly feel justified in attacking. Even if Arminta were able to calmly express her discomfort at this time, he would not hear anything except defensiveness.

So what is one to do in the face of Bullying by the Boss? Before calling in higher authorities, it might be possible to manage the situation by applying a basic rule of communication: Figure out what’s going on with the other person and respond to that.

Arminta can put herself in the place of the boss, imagine his concerns and feelings, and think about what he wants and needs to happen. In the meeting of our scenario, he is concerned about the consequences of the work not getting done, and his feelings might be fear (what will HIS boss say?), frustration, and anger. What he wants to happen is for that report to be filed. What he does NOT want is a discussion about how to speak to other people whose feelings are hurt.

If she chooses to respond right there in the meeting she can respond to his feelings and his desire to get the report filed. She responds to those things because words about his feelings and concerns are the only things he is going to hear right now. In the meeting she could say something like this:

“You’re right. The report should have been filed. I’ll go now and see what…..”

No explaining, no defending, no mention of all the other people who are really at fault. Her goal is to demonstrate that she hears him, and is willing to take action, and to get past this moment.

Later: After time has passed and the emotional field has cleared, and Arminta feels in control of herself, and the boss doesn’t have smoke curling out of his ears, Arminta can request a moment to talk to him.

During this talk she can make a statement similar to this:

  1. Acknowledge the feelings of the boss; “I know you were angry about the report.”
  2. Agree that there was a problem; “I understand that the report should have been filed.”
  3. Express her feeling about this: “I’m sorry I didn’t make that happen.” (or whatever she is sorry about)
  4. Say how she felt when he spoke to her in anger in front of her group; “When you spoke to me in the group I was upset and embarrassed.”
  5. Say what she would like to happen going forward. “I would like you to speak to me in a civil manner.”
  6. And end with what she will do. “I will try to see that errors like this one don’t occur again.”

Sometimes bullying has more to it than can be fixed with a calm and language-neutral talk, but it is usually worth trying this step as many times as you can stand before considering heavier options.

Arminta loses nothing by this approach. By failing to engage in verbal battle she leaves him to look like the only person who is out of control, and she has the satisfaction of speaking up for herself when and how she chooses.

October is Bully Prevention month. If you need help with Bully extermination in your world, give us a call.