How to deal with a bully boss

by Dec 1, 2015

What is your experience of a bully boss?

A bully boss can come in many forms. They are so pervasive, that 50% of employees report bullying in the workplace.

Some bullies have no idea how their behaviour is received and are genuinely shocked and remorseful when confronted. Some are domineering, critical and  manipulative and control through fear. Others are simply controlling tyrants, disturbed and psychologically abusive.

Read: 10 behaviours of an emotional bully


The rampager bully boss

Many people think that bullies are weeded out before they get to the top. But in male dominated corporate cultures, what is perceived as tough management by some, is bullying by another name. Very often the individual is a key performer and their behaviour is tolerated and “work around” solutions are created, because to change the status quo could hit the bottom line.

Harvey Hornstein  in his book Brutal Bosses and Their Prey (Penguin Putnam), defines two species of tyrannical bosses: “The Conqueror” and “The Manipulator”.

Conqueror bosses prey on employees’ weaknesses. They find great thrills in treating the workplace like a battlefield. Once they sense an employee’s soft spot, they pounce on it. The unsuspecting victim doesn’t stand a chance.

Manipulator bosses are the smoothest of bullies. They fear becoming less valued if their underlings get any recognition for exemplary work. Manipulator bosses are backstabbers who’ll go to frightening lengths to look good to their superiors.

A bully boss comes into a number of categories:

1. The rampager

The rampager shouts and yells, slams doors or throws things. He (this type is usually male) uses his power and authority as well as physicality, to intimidate and create an atmosphere of fear.  He might criticise publically and humiliate with threats about poor performance reviews, loss of bonus,  or even job loss, using power, authority and rank to intimidate.

2. The closet bully

Concealed behind a smile and making nice, the closet bully is manipulative. He or she will mask their power playing with apologies and a smile at an incident they have caused.  This style is very female. They will call from a different time zone in the middle of your night and set impossible deadlines knowing you have plans. They will say things like:

 “I was only joking…. you didn’t think I meant it? Oh you did. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise  you were so sensitive.”

Read: Gas lighting in the workplace.

3. The emotional/psychological bully


The closet bully boss

This is almost the worst kind of bully. They are difficult to pin down. They cut you out of the communication loop whether meetings or emails. They withhold key information to allow you to perform optimally. They interrupt and put you down in public. They will ask for your opinion and then tear it apart. They take credit for your ideas. Their body language is demeaning. They query your appearance, accent, eye-sight and body. They will hound a target relentlessly until they can take it no longer.

Read: 10 behaviours of an emotional bully

They can leave an individual sick to their stomachs at the thought of coming to work. That is exactly what happens. Many people take sick leave.

4. The mob leader

This person doesn’t stoop to get his or her hands dirty. Oh no. That would be beneath them. What they do is orchestrate a subtle mobbing campaign and make sure others, quite often reports, are the foot soldiers.

Read:  Mobbing in the workplace

5. The enabler

They never lead any bullying themselves, but either fail to step in, or follow suit, as part of a general mobbing campaign. They support the mob leader indirectly by allowing the bullying to happen or participating in a low-key way. They exhibit what is known as “Bystander Syndrome”

If you need help advancing your career, contact us at 3Plus.

Top tips to deal with a bully boss


The emotional bully boss

Dorothy Dalton in her post The Lipstick Jungle Get me Out of here suggests the following strategy:

  1. Early action:  Don’t wait until you are sick and unable to perform before seeking support. Get help as soon as you feel something is wrong.
  2. Creating an early, time bound, goal-related action plan is key and the earlier the better. If there is a gut feeling over a reasonable period of time that something isn’t right – then it probably isn’t…. somewhere. So investigate.
  3. Defining the context is necessary now. Facts talk. Finding out the guidelines for bullying behaviour in your geographic region, sector or company is a must. Do these companies have a grievance process or a written policy on respectful workplace practises? These are your benchmarks, so establishing what they are and being familiar with the content is important. Knowing your rights and precisely when they are being transgressed is also more empowering than “feeling” bullied. It also will tell you if the line has been crossed into harassment which is legally defined. If this is the case, seek legal and psychological support immediately.
  4. Evaluation of personal performance is next and being clear that all aspects of performance and presence in the workplace are up to scratch.
  5. Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.”mobbing
  6. Keeping a log of the incidents is one of the most significant things that can be done at this point. What is being established is a pattern of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. Most companies have formal channels for communicating performance or job related issues. This is another benchmark. Is the communication stepping outside these channels? If it is, times and dates should be noted. In addition to putting things into context for the target, an audit trail and timeline for any future grievance or legal process and constructive dismissal is also being established. Keep copies off site.
  7. Asking for detailed qualification is one sure way of deflecting verbal abuse and criticism in a calm and business neutral way. “Help me understand….” is a good way to start off dialogue.
  8. Paraphrasing is another great technique for reaching an understanding ” Have I understood correctly…” Confirming that in writing is essential.
  9. Speak privately: There is no point engaging with a bully head on. This is what they love, to bait a victim until they lash out inappropriately or get upset, especially if they have an audience. Use constructive communication techniques. Read: How to master effective communication once and for all by Megan Ritter
  10. Strategic Action  If any employee comes with a dossier of documented instances of abusive or inappropriate behaviour, any HR professional will know they are obligated to investigate it. They also know there is a potential law suit waiting in the wings. The victim’s fear is of course is that any action will make things worse. If it does, note any further instances of inappropriate behaviour, because this now is really crossing the line into harassment.

Decision makers will not only be forced to take note, but to act, before it’s too late for all parties. You need to deal with the bully boss today!


If your organisation needs to identify and attract female talent – contact 3Plus NOW

3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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