NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Nobody says there are more bully bosses today than in the past, but there definitely are more bullied employees who are losing sleep, drinking too much and exhibiting anxiety throughout the work day.
Why more? Simple. The surest cure for a bully boss - and the one most often heard from career counsellors - is to quit. That’s because curing a bully of the need to dominate subordinates is a futile effort. It won’t happen.
The problem with simply quitting: today’s job market remains sluggish. Good-paying jobs are not plentiful. And hope is eternal. Maybe the bully boss will stop bullying or, maybe, the employer will wise up and put the bully boss out on the street. Don’t bet on either.
What you need if your boss is a bully is your own plan for self-protection. The good news: there are steps to take that will minimize the damage this bully does to you and will also let you hold onto your self-confidence. Make no mistake: that bully wants to rip away your self-respect. Bullies like anxious, insecure employees who are beholden to a boss whom they regard with fear.
Why are they bullies? John Stoker, author of Overcoming Fake Talk (McGraw-Hill, 2013), said they are bullies “because they are insecure about something. Mostly they may be concerned about their competence, or they may question their own capability as a leader and as an expert. You could understand that if they are continually worried about not doing something right or not getting the results that are expected of them that they might be overly demanding or that they might try to micromanage everyone.” When a bully has everyone else filled with self-doubt, he believes nobody will notice his shortcomings.
Here’s how to fight back, and rule one is don’t confront the bully. That works in the schoolyard - call out a bully, and, usually, he will back off. But not at work because, at work, disrespect of a supervisor may constitute insubordination, and that can get an employee written up and grease the way for firing. Also, don’t count on intervention by human resources. Some experts - those who fervently believe in the system - suggest filing a complaint with HR. Other, more cynical observers believe that unless the boss is flirting with behavior that can trigger legal action (such as aiming most bullying at women or at people of color), HR will turn its back on this, striking the complaint up to an overly-sensitive employee. Do you believe your HR will stand up for you? If so, complain. If not, read on.
Work fast, work hard to silence a bully boss. Career coach Bill Corbett, who said he personally suffered a bully boss, told his survival tactic: “How I survived was concentrating on what his needs were in his role as my boss. I then began to keep myself five steps ahead of him, predicting what he would need from me and my staff. In most cases, it worked. It kept him happy and off my back.”
Buy time, advised executive coach Roy Cohen. He elaborated: “Agree with and flatter your bully boss. The goal is an exit strategy; to buy time; to network, to enhance your visibility, and to hold out for as long as possible to secure the very best situation.”
Stay positive, said career coach Ruth Ross: “Display self-esteem and show a positive attitude. Don’t give your bully the satisfaction of seeing how this is affecting you.” Many bullies will stop tormenting a target that shows no pain. Hang tough and your bully may go away.
Create a personal safety zone, said executive coach Kris Arrington. “One of the best ways to deal with a bully is to put up what is called 'an invisible emotional shield.' While it sounds a little 'woo-woo' or 'out there,' it works. The basic principle is when a bully boss starts to criticize you, you have to put up an 'emotional shield' in your mind to protect yourself from the onslaught of verbal abuse that is being hurled your way. It is a way to protect yourself without running from the attack or necessarily attacking back.”
Don’t take it personally. Psychotherapist Tina Tessina said, “It's hard not to take criticism, exclusion or a belittling personally, but research shows that adult bullies were usually bullies in childhood, which means the likelihood that their negative behavior started with you is low. Accept that he or she is the one with the problem, not you.”
Change your mindset, said executive coach Tasha Eurich. “When the boss says something hurtful, it isn't a remark on your self worth, it's about their ineffectiveness. Picture their words hitting you, rolling off. When you want to cry, try laughing instead. Imagine a laugh track behind them, like in a sitcom.”
Take those steps, and probably, you’ll insulate yourself against the pains inflicted by your bully. But don’t take that as a cue to slack off. Double-down on a search for a new job, because, really, most experts agreed, a job change is the only way to silence a bully boss permanently.
—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet