The bully boss is a mainstay of popular culture, a frequent onscreen villain who can also be found living, breathing, and putting people down in workplaces across the country. Often, the bully boss character is adored by their unsuspecting superiors and despised by their subordinates, just like the real-life bully bosses many Americans have worked for in their professional careers.
Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute has shown that bosses are by far the most common bullies in the workplace. Indeed, the institute’s “2017 National Survey” reported that 61 percent of bullies are bosses. In the #MeToo age, it is relevant to consider the survey’s additional findings that 70 percent of bullying perpetrators are men and 60 percent of bullying targets are women.
Working with a bully boss can be stressful. When organizations tolerate bully boss behavior, employees are subject to psychological, emotional, physical, social, and economic stressors that also impact the organization’s bottom line. No one wins in this environment.
Why Do the Worst Bullies Keep Getting Promoted?
There is a simple explanation: The bully boss has learned to kiss up and kick down. Further, they have fine-tuned this art so well that top leadership has no clue this behavior is going on. Meanwhile, subordinates don’t dare speak up for fear of retaliation.
Bully bosses know how to play company politics. They will smother their superiors with compliments while boasting of their own (embellished) accomplishments. They integrate themselves so tightly into the company network that no one in top leadership would suspect or believe bullying occurs.
Meanwhile, the kick-down side of the bully boss intimidates employees, making them doubt their own value and job security. The supervisor learns to cover their tracks so well that no one can prove the abusive behavior exists.
The kick-down boss may further strengthen and protect their image by selecting several employees as “favorites” and treating them well. If others do complain of mistreatment, they are discounted. These tactics really do work, and they can cause employees to avoid speaking up to report this behavior.
What to Do If Your Boss Is a Bully
One of the best ways to protect yourself is to document everything. From the moment you realize you work for a bully, keep records. If you have nasty emails, save them. While this type of boss is often smart enough not to put bad behavior in writing, their arrogance can cause them to slip up.
Write down unpleasant conversations and note the dates and times. You never want to be in position where the boss is blaming you for something and your only defense is a vague memory.
Never confront the bully boss. Doing so will merely result in denial. They will push the blame back onto you, and you may become the target of future retaliation.
It is hard to do when you’re a victim of bullying, but it is crucial to be strong. That means not showing emotion when dealing with the bully boss. Getting emotional will only feed their behavior. Stick to the facts in discussions and remain calm and neutral when dealing with a boss who bullies.
Finally, always look to the future. Ask yourself: Will this boss likely be promoted soon? Will they move on to another position in the months ahead? If your answer is yes, then it may be a good idea to stay put and keep out of their line of fire.
If the answer is no, it may be best to consider your professional options and seek other positions elsewhere in the company or at other businesses. Under these circumstances, a change may be good for your career and necessary for your personal well-being.
Maria Minor is an assistant professor in the MBA program at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, where she teaches organizational behavior.