Category Archives: Emotions at work

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

First Things First: Deal with the Human, then, Work

I recently read some advice suggesting that when we’re stressed or feeling non-positive emotions because of situations out side work—the illness of a spouse or child, a divorce, or other personal problem–employees should hide their emotions and pretend to be eager and positive.

I can’t endorse that advice.

Let me tell you a little story that shows why.

The other day I had conference call scheduled with a colleague, Alysa. We’d emailed back-and-forth before hand, so we had a rough agenda going into the meeting. It only took a minute to list the 3-4 topics.

“Where should we start?” I asked.

“Let’s start with the conference session. No, I mean the consulting proposal. Did you send me email about this?” Alysa said.

“Yep, last Tuesday,” I said.

“Oh, I guess I lost it. Sorry, I’m sort of spacey today.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I have it right here,” and started listing the open items.

“Did I tell you my husband’s been laid off?” Alysa blurted.

“No….sounds like we should talk about that first,” I said. “Tell me what happened.”

Alysa told me the about the layoff, how she was trying to give her husband, Harvey, support, and what Harvey was doing to find a new job. She was feeling anxious, worried, and angry. Mostly I listened and offered a few words of commiseration.

After about five minutes, Alysa had finished her story.

“Ok, I can concentrate on our agenda now,” Alysa said.

We continued our meeting, accomplished what we set out to, and ended the meeting on time.

Here’s the paradox: If I had tried to force Alysa to stick to the agenda from the start, and told her that Harvey’s layoff was off-topic, we would not have gotten our work done. Alysa wouldn’t have been fully present or focused. By taking a few minutes to acknowledge what was happening, we were able to move on to productive work.

We all deal with the potential for people to be emotionally pre-occupied at work everyday. It may be an argument with a spouse or a sick child. Perhaps the school has called to report that Junior is up for detention. All sorts of events outside of work come with us when we enter the office door. Work events can cause emotional responses, too. Mergers, re-orgs, new bosses, downsizing, and even mundane events can create emotional situations. We don’t turn off our human-ness or our emotions when we come to work.

For the organization, ignoring emotions takes a toll on productivity—people are distracted and unable to focus. For individuals, it adds to stress and alienation.

Now, I don’t believe that we should let it all out at work—even when we know our co-workers really well, we’re not in the bosom of our family. Consider the context and recognize that we are all human, and our emotions are part of what and who we are. We need to manage our emotions, not hide, fake, or ignore them. Deal with the human first, and it will be easier to get the work done.

Here are some strategies for managing emotions that make it to the office:

Confide in a friend.

Alysa and I know each other pretty well, and it was only the two of us in the meeting. Alysa feels comfortable saying things to me that she might not choose to say in a more formal meeting.

Sometimes it’s enough to tell someone what’s going on, like Alysa did with me. If you have a good friend at work, talk to him or her. Often when we feel heard and understood it’s easier to put the matter aside and concentrate.

Acknowledge emotional responses.

Karen, a team lead in a software company, was upset because her manager, Ted, had countermanded a technical decision she had made. When Karen told Ted she was upset, Ted responded “I’ve thought about it, and there’s no reason for you to feel that way.” Karen was not soothed.

We feel that way we feel, whether there’s a “reason” or not. Ted would have made more headway had he simply accepted Karen’s emotional response and talked about solving the problem… clarifying decision boundaries.

Notice what’s happening.

Earlier this month I was working with a group to surface requirements. I noticed that one of the key experts, Rosalind, was awfully quiet and kept looking down at her hands. When I looked more closely, I could see there were tears in her eyes. When we reached a reasonable stopping point, I called a break and called Rosalind aside.

“What’s happening for you?” I asked. Rosalind had just learned that her husband had cancer. We took the time before the break ended to decide what to do. Rosalind decided she’d stay for the session, and leave to be with her husband as soon as the meeting was over. Having that settled and telling someone what was going on allowed her set aside her worry and distress (at least for a short while) to participate in the requirements gathering session.

Use check-ins.

For a longer meeting or working session that requires everyone’s participation, consider doing a short check-in. A check-in serves as a boundary between outside and inside the meeting and allows people to say just a bit about their background noise, if they choose to. Something as small as being stuck in traffic and feeling rushed can block concentration. Saying it aloud can help to let it go.

Use the resources available.

Sometimes emotional distractions last longer than a few days. Jon, a programmer on my team, went through a nasty custody negotiation when he divorced. He needed to take time off work for legal appointments and mediation. When Jon came to talk to me about it, he was worried that between the emotions, stress, and time off, his work would suffer.

I put Jon in touch with the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). He was able to find a support group for divorcing dads. (I didn’t try to be Jon’s therapist… that wasn’t my job as a manager. I did put him in touch with HR and worked out a flexible schedule with him, both of which were within my job as a manager.) Jon was able to remain productive at work.

If your company has an EAP, you usually don’t need to wait for your manager to bring it up. It’s there for you to use and there’s no shame in seeking support to cope with a difficult life event.

Manage employees who can’t or won’t manage themselves.

Once in a great while I encounter people who are unable to manage their emotions at work. It’s not your job to be a therapist or to fix your employees. When a member of your team is repeatedly unable to focus on work because of emotional issues, coach the employee to obtain appropriate professional help. If the employee continues to be unable to focus and do the work he’s paid to do, coach him out of the job.

What do you do to manage emotions at work? What’s the price of ignoring emotions at work?

An earlier version of this column appeared on in 2003.

The Blame Game

No one likes to be blamed, so why do we blame each other in the first place? What place does it have in our relationships, and how does it affect our problem-solving abilities? A personal experience with customer disservice to highlight our attraction to assigning blame and how it delays us from reaching solutions.

Not long ago, I took my dog to the boarding kennel as I was leaving for a business trip. Usually she stays at home, but this time my husband was going to be out of town, too.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked. “I’m here to drop Pudge off for boarding,” I replied, expecting I’d spend minutes to sign the papers, give Pudge a goodbye pat, and head to the airport.

The receptionist pulled up a computer screen and examined it. Then she looked a paper file. “You’re not supposed to be here today. Your reservation is for next week on the 28th,” she declared.

Oh, crap, I thought. This could be a real problem. The first thing to do is determine whether they can fit her in. If not, I need to start making phone calls right away.

“Oh, dear,” I said out loud. “That’s odd. I was sure I made the reservation for today. Is there room to board Pudge for next three days?”

“You’re wrong,” the receptionist asserted. “Your reservation is for the 28th.”

Let’s skip the fact that this exchange is not a stellar example of customer service. What was really interesting to me was that the receptionist insisted on telling me I was wrong, even in the face of the evidence that I was there and had a plane to catch. I wasn’t particularly interested in assigning blame; I wanted to move on to Plan B if I needed to, make sure my dog would be cared for, and make my flight.

What is Blame?

The dictionary definition of “blame” is to find fault with or hold responsible. There certainly are times when people in organizations need to hold people responsible for when their actions cause problems. From a psychological perspective, though, blame is a defense mechanism. It makes the blamer feel powerful by making the person being blamed feel small. But blaming a person (or a system) for a problem gets in the way of solving a problem.

The High Price of Blame

When blame is the default behavior in an organization, bad things happen.

People withhold information because the fear how they’ll be treated when they bring up problems. That makes it harder for anyone to actually solve problems. Of course, problems can’t hide forever. When the information finally comes out, the problems are usually bigger and the options to solve them fewer.

People invest energy making sure that they won’t be blamed when a problem arises (as problems inevitably do). That leads to paper trails, positioning, and creating plausible deniability.

Once problems do surface, people are scared or disengaged and don’t offer their best ideas. That makes it more likely that the fix will be a band-aid that soothes symptoms, but doesn’t address root causes.

When blame is the knee-jerk response, people don’t learn from problems and mistakes. The may try something different, but it won’t be from a deep understanding of the situation. They’ll try the least risky action that will protect them from more blame.

All this makes it more likely that it will take longer for problems to become visible—at which point they will be even hairier and harder to fix, creating a vicious cycle.

Shifting the Blame Dynamic

When someone brings a problem to you, you have a choice. You can blame, or you can engage in problem-solving.

First, slow down and become aware of your own response. Are you feeling scared or angry? Are you worried that you will be blamed? Blaming the messenger won’t change whether someone else will blame you. But, if you move to problem-solving, you will be able to communicate what you plan to do, not just bring bad news.

Ask questions—using a neutral tone of voice—to understand the issue and implications. Questions that start with What and How are likely to sound less blaming than questions that start with Why. (Assuming you don’t ask “What the heck were you thinking?” or “How did you make this mess?” Those questions would not be helpful.)

Figure out what to do about the immediate issue. Ask if the person who brought the problem needs help. If she doesn’t need (or want help), don’t inflict it. Agree on how you’ll assess progress solving the problem.

Ask for the help you need to explain the implications to others.

Later (but not much later), you can investigate root causes. Don’t assume that it’s a problem with the individual; the issue may very well be a system problem. There may be other lessons to learn from the problem—for example, how to set expectations, how to break work into inch pebbles, and how to make progress (and problems) more visible. Be careful of your phrasing. Keep it neutral and on an adult-to-adult level. “What did you learn from this” can sound like a parent or teacher speaking to a child. And don’t call it a “teachable moment”—that phrase smacks of condescension.

In organizations where blame is pervasive, blame is the systemic issue. The only way to work out of blame orientation is to choose not to blame. Instead, demonstrate problem-solving, and gradually rebuild trust with those with whom you work directly.

There are times when we do have to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But usually it’s more important to fix the problem and learn from the situation.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of blame, do your best to stay centered and move toward problem-solving. Articulate what you know about the problem, what you have tried, and where you need help. Remember that blamers often feel small and scared. Blaming is their way of coping with those feelings.

So, what happened at the kennel?

When I made my request to check availability the fourth time, the receptionist finally walked over to a wall calendar that showed all the kennel reservations for the week. There was space for Pudge. It took three minutes for the hand off. I expressed my gratitude that there was a place open and continued on my way.

You could look at this and say the receptionist is a little slow and doesn’t understand customer service. But I think there was something else at play. She didn’t want to be blamed. Fear of blame begets blaming, and blame always delays solving the problem.

This article originally appeared on