In the course of 28 years as a consultant, I’ve probably run into a half-dozen bully bosses, those people who appear to be pleasant enough initially but then throw you a curve when you actually think you’re doing the right thing. I thought it would be good to focus a blog on this topic, include some of the things I’ve learned along the way, and invite others to share their insights as well. After all, dealing with a bully boss can ruin the day, the project, even the motivation to continue.
What makes a boss a bully? I believe that bully bosses think very highly of themselves; in fact to a certain degree they believe they are the only ones with the correct answers. Interestingly, this often shows up in mid-process, not in the beginning. Some will allow people to get started on a project or task, because they don’t fully know how to do it themselves. They will often not participate in the development of ideas, but focus instead on critiquing ideas once they are generated. Others will berate staff for not having answers early enough in a project and will supply all the answers from the start.
I think the belief that they are superior to others – smarter, more sophisticated and worldly, cleverer than others – stems from two mental models. One is based on early successes that established them as out-of-the-ordinary, exceptional in some way. The other is based on them demonstrating difficult behaviors early on that never were addressed because of their exceptional accomplishments. The boundaries of behavior were extended to allow rude, demanding, sarcastic and condescending behavior without corrective feedback. Look how tolerant people were of Steve Jobs’ behavior because of his unique genius.
Here are some other specific behaviors I have seen with bully bosses:
- They sit in meetings and don’t participate, but read/send emails and feign disinterest. The group sees the behavior and assumes that the individual is disengaged from the topic. This is a mistaken assumption. The bully is not participating because he/she believes to participate would be to “become one of the group” which he/she has no intention of doing. More than likely, they have very strong opinions about the topic.
- They allow projects to move forward under a misguided assumption that there is agreement to proceed. That is not necessarily the case. The bully will repeatedly bring projects back to the beginning if he/she did not really agree to the project from the start. This is done by questioning in mid-stream whether something should proceed, or by criticizing what has been done so far.
- The bully boss changes the dimensions of an assignment based on internal criteria that are not openly shared with others (remember to participate is to lower oneself). Instead the assumption of the bully is that “you should have been able to read my mind and know what I wanted AND, more importantly, what I didn’t want.” They have very strong recognition needs that are exhibited through this mind-reading expectation. It is often apparent as well that their “yes” is not a true yes.
- The bully boss sees him/herself as the only arbiter of correctness – a critical observer who sits in judgment according to a measure that is not transparent to others. He/She has a strong need to “get it right and get recognized” that forms the basis for his/her attack.
- We often see the bully bosses as a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. They will use friendliness and flattery as a manipulative behavior that lowers the guard of other people in the conversation. They want people to like them and will often try to “smooth ruffled feathers” after an outburst.
- It’s important to know that this is not truly how they feel about you, just like their “yes” is not truly a “yes.” In fact, if a bully begins to feel that he/she is losing control, the attack will suddenly become personal in nature. As right as you are, the bully boss will make you the source of the problem.
- One important common denominator I’ve seen is that they don’t take any joy in the accomplishments of others. We often facilitate high energy group work to develop strategies and priorities. The bully bosses will walk into the room in the middle of the process and comment that the work is a “waste of time.” I used to argue but now I see that in their minds, it is a waste of time because they already see themselves as having the correct answer.
As I said in the beginning, I’ve run into a half-dozen of these bully bosses in my experience as a consultant. I’m always surprised (which is annoying to me) because they often appear to be in agreement when, in fact, they aren’t. They also struggle with competent types who actually accomplish what they say they will. The bully boss is threatened by the appearance of success and the loss of control. So what are some strategies for dealing with a bully boss (other than quitting the job):
1. Create a buffer between yourself and the bully boss if possible. That buffer is usually an individual who reports to the bully boss and has positioned him/herself as a mediator. Don’t got outside your buffer, but use your buffer to negotiate what you need.
2. Use group pressure to advance your objective. Never go it alone, but rather identify a “me, too” who will agree with you in any discussion. Prep your support before opening discussions.
3. If the bully boss is on a tirade and lecturing, wait for him/her to take a breath and then interrupt by calling his/her name repeatedly. Be prepared to be assertive with your approach, but also utilize the “fake” friendliness that they do so well. “I certainly don’t mean to interrupt (yes you do, but you’re not going to say it). I am concerned that this approach will not be successful over time.” Remember, bully bosses see themselves as the ultimate authority on what is right; if you can show that they are missing something in their definition of “right,” they will listen to you.
4. Shift the power base, if the bully boss is blasting at you, by saying, “You’ve given me a lot of feedback to think about; I want to take a bit of time to review it and get back to you.” At that point, you have shifted the power to you having control over when the conversation will continue. Know that the bully boss will sense the power shift and not be happy, but it will give you time to calm down and address the issues more professionally.
5. Put on your armadillo suit, build your network, and keep your options open. The worst thing in the world is to feel trapped in a situation with no way out. It’s important to know and remember who you are dealing with and not to let their bully behavior affect your own self-esteem. Their behavior can cause us to become more introverted, when our best response is to put on our armadillo suit that protects us from the “darts” and simultaneously reach out and build our network of colleagues, keeping our options open and active. We need feedback from others who can accurately reflect what’s going on. The bully boss is dysfunctional and it’s important that we don’t succumb to that dysfunction or respond to his/her dysfunction in our own dysfunctional pattern. Prepping ahead of time, establishing realistic expectations and being mindful of making assumptions will be key to our success.
What’s been your experience with a bully boss?