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11 Tips To Handle A Bullying Boss

Excerpt from Am I the Only Sane One Working Here? 101 Solutions for Surviving Office Insanity, by Dr. Albert Bernstein.

To deal effectively with a tyrant, your head has to win out over your anger and fear. Your emotion is the ultimate source of your boss’s dark power. Here are some moves to consider:

Ask Yourself, “Why Am I Still Here?” No one deserves to be treated like chattel. To keep your sanity when you work for a bully, you need to look into your own heart to find the reason you stay, and that reason is what you need to hold on to. If it’s for money or power, or because it’s a necessary step in your career, go for it. In the dark times, that’s what you will need to remind yourself. If the only reason you’re staying is that you’re afraid to look for another job, it’s time to go. Your own fear will do you more damage than any bully ever could.

Be Realistic. Don’t expect your boss to change in response to anything you or anyone else might say or do, and don’t believe for a moment that if you somehow read his or her mind and do everything correctly, the criticism will come to an end. The criticism is the source of a bullying boss’s power. It is an end in itself. Instead of hoping for a miracle, observe carefully and anticipate attacks. Don’t be disappointed — be prepared.

Don’t Wave a Red Flag in Front of a Bull. When someone in authority is unreasonable, we all have the tendency to display the very behaviors that get under his or her skin. (Of course, we never do these things on purpose.) For example, if your boss is a punctuality nut, coming in two or three minutes late or taking a longer lunch may be temporarily satisfying, but it will leave your boss with a score to settle with you. Follow the rules, no matter how arbitrary.

Become Indispensable. If at all possible, develop competence in an area in which your boss lacks expertise. This knowledge base will make you more valuable and may give you some latitude for bargaining. Transcend Temper. Most tyrannical bosses delight in criticizing their employees in front of others. When this happens to you need to endure it quietly with dignity. Maintain eye contact, and resist the temptation to explain. Your best strategy lies in listening to what the boss has to say, asking what he or she wants you to do, and getting out of the situation as quickly as possible. Many office tyrants say that they want employees who will stand up to them. I have never known any who would tolerate it, especially in front of an audience.

Keep Your Ducks in a Row. Know what is going on in your department,and be ready at a moment’s notice to recite facts and figures. Tyrants love to get their information by cross-examining their employees, rather than by listening to presentations. Be ready at any time to give information when subjected to the third degree.

Warn Your Family. Let your family know that your boss may ask you to do things at inconvenient times, such as the middle of the night or two days into your vacation. Make sure you share your mixed feelings, and your reasons for staying. Resist the trickle-down temptation to treat your family members the way your boss treats you. Likewise, resist the temptation to make your boss into the family villain and to come home every day ranting about the awful deeds perpetrated on you. This will only make you feel worse, and there will be subtle pressure from home for you to stand up to the asshole.

Avoid the Temptation to Gripe. There is nothing more tempting than getting together with fellow employees and talking about atrocities. This feels therapeutic while it’s happening, but it makes the situation harder to live with in the long run. Psychological research shows clearly that the more you talk about how bad you feel, the worse you feel.

Keep Records. When you are told to do something, make sure that what you are asked to do is clear. Log conversations and directives. You may need to refer to them later.

Be Able to Assess Your Own Performance. Office tyrants are quick to blame and slow to praise. To keep your own sanity, you have to be able to know how well you are doing without being told. Pay close attention to your goals and objectives and how well you are meeting them. This is partly a way to defend yourself, but it also is a way to convince yourself that you are doing a good job, even if you are unappreciated.

Demand Top Dollar. Many tyrants are willing to pay for the privilege of pushing their employees around. If you are going to stand up and stand firm in any area, that area should be salary. Make a coherent case, and don’t be afraid to “push.” This is one facet in which your boss is likely to be reasonable.

Forget Justice. The most dangerous strategy I can imagine is going over your boss’s head hoping that his or her boss will side with you. Often, tyrannical bosses do quite well with the bottom line, and their bosses tend to allow them quite a bit of leeway. If you do attempt to attack from above, realize that it is a kill-or-be-killed situation. Do not imagine for a minute that the union, a government agency, or a lawyer will be able to bring your boss to justice. It does happen occasionally, but your case will have to be just about strong enough to put your boss behind bars, or at least get him or her fired.

Finally, if after reading these suggestions you find yourself coming up with reasons that they won’t apply in your situation, maybe today is the day you should turn in your resignation.

Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, bestselling author, and nationally recognized expert in conflict resolution. His work on psychological issues in the workplace has been featured in Men’s Health, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple, Parents, Best Life, and other publications.


Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, bestselling author, and nationally recognized expert in conflict resolution. His work on psychological issues in the workplace has been featured in Men's Health, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple, Parents, Best Life, and other publications.