Bully Boss

A recent phone call reminded me of this article that I wrote in 2004. The story is real, the names are not. It’s a story that is all too common.

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Not too long ago, I had lunch with my friend Sarah. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so I was surprised when she mentioned that she was leaving the company she has been with for almost ten years. The developers, testers, and other managers at this company respect her, and she loves what she does. Her workplace sounds ideal. So, why is Sarah leaving?

Sarah isn’t leaving for a more prestigious position or a higher salary; her boss is driving her out the door. Sarah’s manager blows up when things don’t go the way he wants them to, and she has had enough. “I’m tired of being screamed at,” Sarah said. “Life is too short.”

Sarah’s not the only one who has had to deal with a hostile boss. According to an article in American Way, “42% of US workers reported incidents of yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace.” While some people may feel they have to accept abusive behavior from bosses in order to keep their job, I agree with Sarah: Life is too short.

The Costs of Yelling and Verbal Abuse

Some people I talk to dismiss my concerns about workplace abuse. They tell me I’m too sensitive. “It’s just Frank,” they say. “He blows up, and then it blows over. Nobody takes it seriously.” But there are costs.

People who work for abusive managers often have stress-related problems and illnesses. They miss work due to symptoms, and they are less productive when they are at work. Their energy isn’t going into building software; it’s going into dealing with the emotional fallout of their manager’s behavior.

Yellers also drive attrition – turnover is higher, and it’s harder to entice internal candidates to work for a manager who has a reputation for outbursts and abuse. Many people would rather walk out the door than work for an abusive boss. The people who do stay may feel trapped by the job market or their own beaten-down self-esteem. People who feel trapped or beaten-down are not productive workers.

In my experience, abusive managers fall into three categories. How you handle the situation depends on which kind of screamer you’re up against.

Unaware

Strange as it may seem, I’ve actually met managers who were not even aware they were yelling. Some people come from families where yelling is part of their “normal” communication. They see yelling as expressive, not aggressive. They may not be aware of the effect their yelling has on other people.

Crack-the-Whip

Some managers believe that people are basically lazy and will not work without coercion and threats of punishment. This view is called “Theory X” management. It doesn’t work. I don’t hear many developers or testers say, “I work better when I’m a little afraid. If my boss didn’t threaten me, I’d never get a thing done!” But some managers believe that this is the case. People who hold this view see yelling and threats as appropriate management action.

Sometimes yelling works in the short-term, as people will do what the yeller wants to get him to stop yelling, or keep him for yelling again.  This reinforces the yeller’s mental model of management.  He seldom looks at the other effects of his management methods: stress, illness, information hiding, lack of engagement.

Out-of-Control

Some people are not able to manage their emotions and responses. These are the bosses that react disproportionately, blow up, vent, swear (we’re not talking the occasional “Oh, %#@!”),and generally fly off the handle.

What You Can Do

If your manager is the Out-of-Control variety, you can try solve the problem by working with HR.

When your manager becomes abusive, stand up, state that you will not tolerate verbal abuse, and leave the room. Go to HR and file a formal complaint. Keep in mind that HR’s job is to protect the company’s interests, not yours. In my experience, the higher in the management chain the abuser is, the less likely HR will take action. The company has probably tacitly accepted his behavior for years, but when there are multiple complaints on file, HR may decide that it is in the company’s best interest to deal with the abuser. If there are witnesses to the abuse, talk to them about corroborating your account. And be prepared for an tense and uncomfortable patch while the process works out.

You may be able to manage this situation by making your own power move. Bring a recorder to your next meeting. Don’t hide it. (That could lead to some other problems.) Be quite open, put the recorder on the desk and say “I’m going to record our conversation, so I don’t have to rely on my memory to recall all the important things you have to say.” Start the recorder. This reduces the chance that your manager will yell. And if she does, it’s on tape.

Rarely, I hear from someone who has found a way to survive an abusive boss.  They manage to cope and let it roll off their backs.  The fact that you can’t let it roll off yours doesn’t mean you are too sensitive, thin-skinned, or weak.

Threats of physical harm, retribution, and personal attacks are well over the line. Verbal abuse is never acceptable.

People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others.

No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses. End of discussion.

Sometimes the HR department isn’t willing to take any action. Consider what you are willing to live with, and start examining your options for another position, in or out of the company, and make an exit. If you do leave, state your reasons for leaving in the exit interview.

There’s more hope for managers who aren’t out of control. Start with the most generous interpretation and the smallest intervention.

Assume your manager isn’t aware that he’s yelling. Comment on the yelling and the effect it’s having on you. In a calm voice say, “What you have to say is important to me, but I can’t hear you when you’re yelling.” This may be enough to jolt the yeller into awareness.

A manager who continues to yell may be a Theory X Manager. You probably won’t change his mind, but you might change his behavior. State again that it’s important that you hear what he has to say, but right now you can’t because of his yelling. State that you will reschedule the meeting for later in the day, and then leave the room. When you meet again, tell him the effect that his yelling has on you. Request that meetings and conversations take place in a normal tone of voice. If that fails, consider bringing a recorder to meetings, and contact HR.

Employees have a right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. Many mega-decibel managers cease and desist when faced with resistance. When you encounter an abusive manager, hold on to your self-esteem, take action, and decide whether the paycheck is worth the price.

***

Reader Jerry Conklin sent this response when the article was originally published (posted with permission):

The manager who uses his position to bully employees is pathetic and worse than useless. The negative effect of such people is powerful. This kind of bullying behavior has produces human misery and project failure. Such people need to be weeded out of management.

Like all bullies, the bullying manager hates himself. Since he cannot face that fact, he uses whatever power he has to dump that hate on anyone perceived as weak and vulnerable. At bottom, he is a cringing coward and can generally be seen to grovel before his superiors. He is drven by fear.

The main responsibility of any manager is to remove obstacles to productivity not to create them. The fulfillment of such a responsibility requires character, integrity and courage. The bullying manager is often tolerated because she has high technical qualifications. When someone has shown herself to have the cited leadership traits, then we can talk about technical capability. The bully is a weakling who is, by definition, devoid of the character traits necessary to lead people.

Well said, Jerry.

Also check out Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule.

An earlier version of this article appeared on stickyminds.com.

4 thoughts on “Bully Boss

  1. Thanks for a great post!

    Yelling and threating are just two of many ways of bullying, which results in the same problems (stress, lower self esteem etc). Yelling is an obvious cause to the issue, but other things are harder to fix or even bring up. I’m thinking about managers who (un)knowingly uses methods like taking credit for others work, ignoring certain persons, blaming etc.

    1. Hi, Martin –

      Of course, you are right. There are other less visible, and therefore more insidious forms of bullying.

      Some people justify bullying as a way to get work done. What really happens is that people comply (at least on the surface) to avoid further abuse.

      Bullying destroys trust and real value.

      e

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