Horrible personalities aren’t just a problem on the playground. Jerks, bullies, and mean-spirited people are in the workplace too. So what should you do if you can’t stand your own boss?
Let’s get the most important piece of advice out of the way right at the top: if your boss is a bully, leaving is among the most powerful choices you can make.
If you have a cruel, vindictive supervisor and you quit your job, there are several benefits:
- You never have to see that person again.
- You may get to tell the truth in your exit interview with HR.
- You’ve probably got a better sense for detecting bullies in the future.
- You communicate subtly to your coworkers that “it’s just not worth it.”
Great stuff. But heading for the door isn’t always an option. What else should you know?
This Isn’t a New Problem, But It Is Widespread
Your boss isn’t the first one to be a tyrant. That title might belong to the the original emperor of Chinese, Qin Shi Huang. Or maybe the Roman Emperor Nero. Plus, workplace bullying is a topic we’ve covered here before on The Methodology Blog: whether it’s an overview of abuse in the office or a creepy infographic on psychopath bosses.
Alyssa Figueroa’s piece on this phenomenon is subtitled “FEAR IN AMERICA.” She writes:
Twenty-seven percent of all adult Americans report experiencing work abuse and an additional 21 percent of Americans report witnessing it, meaning some 65 million Americans have been affected.
“Anything that affects 65 million Americans is an epidemic,” said Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “But it’s an un-discussable epidemic because employers don’t want this discussed.”
Not talking about work abuse has, in turn, normalized the violence, fear and power structure inherent to the phenomenon.
The Advice is Inconsistent
Not everyone agrees on what you should do in these situations. That same Alternet article warns that if you have a bully for a boss, don’t expect the environment to get better:
Therapist Judith Wyatt emphasizes that because it’s nearly impossible to escape authoritarian work organizations, where there’s always some kind of abuse, workers should learn some safeguards. The first step is developing a deep understanding of the norms of your workplace as well as acknowledging that you ultimately adhere to these norms.
“We try to teach people to be warriors because they can’t expect justice,” Wyatt said. “The hardest thing for people to accept in breaking through their denial about the workplace is that there’s no justice. It’s not about justice. If you want this job, if you want to stay there, you have to comply with the norms. Period. If you want to leave, you can. But you have to know what you’re up against.”
But another piece from CNBC says treat bullies like children:
Bad bosses and toddlers share a lot of traits: Tantrums, being demanding, stubborn, self-centered, and, fickle with a short attention span, needy, and prone to mood swings.
Office export Lynn Taylor says one of the best approaches in a tough climate is to be the office diplomat.
“Sandwich negative information between positive — and end on a positive note,” she said. “Point to other people in the organization doing great work and don’t be afraid to praise the boss for things he or she is doing right,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, we all want to be praised.”
My own advice on the topic? turn the conversation to getting things done:
The same strategy to use with anyone who is negatively affecting your workplace experience: Focus on the fundamental purpose of work. The reason you have a job is to produce. No matter whether the behavior others exhibit is uncooperative, distracting or demeaning, they will hurt your productivity. Your ultimate ally against any workplace frustration is your ability to make progress.
If your boss tries to bully you into doing more work, ask him to help you prioritize your task list. If your boss berates the quality of your efforts, ask for specific feedback so you can improve. If your boss makes snide comments, take them literally, ask for clarification or include them in the meeting minutes word for word. If your boss tells you to put a project on hold, send a confirmation e-mail in case you need to remind him of the decision later. Your productivity is absolutely inviolable. No boss can bully you while you are focused on getting work done.
Try them. One might work for you.
Safety in Numbers
If you work for a large corporation, chances are you aren’t the only person dealing with the bully. Talk to your colleagues. Consider writing a group letter to HR, or approaching them for a meeting. Present consistent concerns to the people in charge. Work together.
If you are in a small business, a tiny non-profit, or an isolated department, your allies may not be at the next desk. But you can join your professional society, talk to your friends, or check out an online resource such as those from the American Psychological Association or the Workplace Bullying Institute.
And of course, there’s plenty to read online. No matter what you do, work to conquer your fear. That’s the best way to ensure that the bullies don’t win.