Handling a Boss that’s a Bully…

Recently, a good friend called me in distress because her new boss had just humiliated her in a meeting in front of her employees. She described the pattern of him demeaning and putting her down in front of other people over the course of a few weeks. She could no longer write it off as “he’s just having a bad day,” and she couldn’t tolerate it anymore because it was starting to affect her motivation and performance. Not only that, but the longer she put up with it, the worse she felt about herself. I was totally shocked by her boss’s behavior toward her because she is a former employee of mine from a previous job, and she is one of the most intelligent, high-performing, and hard-working people I know. I told her that he is a bully, and we talked a bit about how this was affecting her, how she felt about it, who she is as a person, and what she could do that would preserve her integrity with herself.

She decided her best option was to address it with her boss head on, and if that didn’t work, she would go to her boss’s boss. So we prepared for the conversation using the Situation – Behavior – Impact – Request (SBIR) feedback model from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) that I use with my clients. Here’s what she did:

  • She scheduled a meeting with her boss a couple of days away to give herself time to cool down and gather her thoughts about what she wanted to say.
  • She met with him privately and told him specifically what the situation was (in the project team meeting), what he did (the specific demeaning comments), the impact it had on her (embarrassed and discredited her in front of her team) and her request going forward (respectfully disagree; make it about the issue, not a personal attack; criticize in private, not in front of others).
  • She also took it a step further in assertiveness since he had been so aggressive previously and told him that what he said and how he treated her was disrespectful and unacceptable to her. She expressed that she treats everyone with courtesy and respect and she expects to receive the same treatment – very brave on her part!

To her surprise, they ended up having a good conversation about moving the project forward and the experiences she brings to the team, and he thanked her for bringing all of this to his attention. He was much less confrontational than she expected in this one-on-one dialogue. I suspect either because he didn’t realize the negative impact of his behavior or because he was shocked that she had the guts to call him on it. Many people who behave this way have been getting away with it for years, and in his case, rewarded for it through promotions to leadership positions. Time will tell if he actually changes his behavior, but this was a victory for her regardless. By standing up for herself, she felt more empowered because she did something that she was afraid to do, demonstrating and experiencing tremendous courage, and because she subconsciously sent the message to herself that she is worth fighting for.

In my experience, unless her boss’s boss addresses his bullying behavior, it will continue. He will move on to other victims if the organization sends the message that it’s acceptable behavior simply by doing nothing about it and allowing it to continue. Although, I predict that he will no longer bully my friend because she established a boundary by making it clear that it is not acceptable and that she will not tolerate it. Bullies tend to take the path of least resistance – it’s less effort to move on to easier targets than to bully someone who’s going to put up a respectful fight. People learn how to treat us by how we allow ourselves to be treated. I am so proud of my friend for having the courage to teach her boss how she expects to be treated in a constructive and transparent way, having compassion both for herself and her boss. This is only one of her many brave acts that I have witnessed since I’ve known her, and I’m honored to call her my friend.

 “Worthiness is my birthright.” — Brene Brown

 “Cruelty is cheap, easy, and chicken-shit.” — Brene Brown

“Show me how big your brave is. Say what you wanna say and let the words fall out. Honestly I wanna see you be brave.” – Sara Bareilles

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