Workplace Culture

Bully or Tough Boss? Here Are Some Guidelines to Define Leadership

By Barbara Fisher

May. 31, 2019

The good news: Many companies invest in programs that support employee physical and mental health of their employees. They understand that flourishing human beings generally translate into happier and higher performing employees.

The bad news: Not all bosses have gotten the memo.

It’s bad enough that after having to dodge bullies in school; we still confront them even as adults. Even worse, the bully may be the person who’s supposed to be in charge of your mentorship and growth, yet it seems like they’re more interested in intimidation and threats.

So how do you know when your boss has crossed the line into being a bully, and what do you do when he or she has?

How to Spot a Bully at Work

Having cut my teeth at a Fortune 50 technology company, I’ve heard a lot of debate on whether a boss was tough or simply a bully. It can sometimes be hard to tell if a boss is pushing you to reach your limits or trying to push you off a cliff.

A boss that only wants to be liked and lets his or her team walk all over them is another kind of danger. But being assertive and demanding can go too far. Leadership is tricky; one must be aware of their own personality derailers, understand positive and impactful boundaries, and be able to inspire others to help drive lasting results, without being a bully.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “threats, humiliation, intimidation, work sabotage or verbal abuse.” In its 2017 report, they found that about 1 in 5 workers are bullied at work, and 61 percent of the bullies are bosses.

If you want to know if you’re being bullied, ask yourself how you feel. If you’re being pushed by a tough boss, you should still feel inspired and psychologically safe. If you feel nauseous at the thought of going to work, unable to sleep and stressed to the max, you might be being bullied.

Bullies come in a few varieties, some easier to spot than others.

The easiest one is the loud, abusive boss. They humiliate you in front of others. You’re the butt of their jokes. They curse at you. It feels like the playground and you’re being pushed in the dirt by the big kid.

There is also the boss who is a passive bully. They torment their targets with quiet but piercing techniques such as undermining their employees, dividing their team, gossiping and sometimes even creating lies. This one feels a little more like high school, whispering in the halls.

How to Handle a Bullying Boss

There is not a single or simple answer to how to manage a boss who believes the best way to develop employees is to give them tough love or build thick skin by being abusive, abrasive or explosive.

If you find yourself in this type of environment, let me start by saying it is not OK and it is not your fault. I understand how being in this type of situation can tear you apart emotionally and physically. Breaking you is what the bully wants to do.

The most important thing you must do is take care of yourself. Removing yourself from the situation is always an option.

Some may criticize me for suggesting you leave the bully boss situation, because it may look like you’re letting the bully win. But it is an option you have and sometimes this is the best option for you.

If you choose to take on the situation head on, here’s my advice:

Have a plan. Be thoughtful and deliberate about how you will show up, perform, communicate and get results.

Continue to perform. Bring others along on your journey and deliver results. The bully will have a hard time attacking you if others are involved and part of your work.

Document. Even the little things should go in a log. A bully often makes mistakes that will leave them vulnerable to being reported.

Be careful who you trust. You may find yourself in a situation where you are ganged up on because another person the bully attacks is looking for any break from the bad behavior and they actually side with the bully. It reduces their torment. It sounds crazy, but it happens.

Talk to someone. Many people think this is a sign of weakness but it is not. You might want to talk with someone outside your organization so you know it won’t get back to the bully.

Remember That Bullies Are Ultimately Pathetic

I have come across a few bullies in my career and they were miserable people. They talked about others all the time, bringing everyone around them down.

Their home lives were sad. They were often unhealthy. When they did smile, it was forced. They carried a lot of stress and it showed up in their work, relationships, family and community.

The one thing I remind myself of frequently is that bullies I have come across in my career have to live with themselves every day.

You can escape your bully, but they cannot escape themselves. In time you will rise above the situation and never look back and your bully has the pleasure of living in their hateful and unhealthy life. That is their punishment.

Most bullies lack confidence and feel powerful when others feel powerless. Bullies are often threatened by the person they are bullying. It sounds silly and it is, but it is often true. You must take care of yourself if you find yourself in a situation like this. This will impact how you show up for yourself, your coworkers, your team and, more important, your family and friends.

It’s never OK for someone to bully another person. If the bully is making it sound like it is to get the best results out of a person or toughen them up, feel free to call it out.

There is no place for an abusive boss, including verbal abuse. I believe strongly in accountability and I set a high bar — professionally and personally — for my peers, my team and myself. Please do the same for yourself.

Barbara Fisher is chief operating and people officer at Aduro, a health and well-being company. Previously, she spent two decades at Intel Corp., where she most recently served as vice president, chief human resource officer of talent management.

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