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Your Manager Is a Bully (but You Aren’t Helpless)

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Browsing through the digital libray I found this great  NY Times Career Couch column from way back in 2007 and it deserves another read especially if you’re starting to wonder if that boss of yours is a bully:

Q. Your boss regularly berates you in department meetings, and the behavior is starting to become offensive to you. What should you do?

A. Think before you act. John McKee, president of Four Windows No Walls Consulting, a consulting firm in Sedalia, Colo., says that although it is never acceptable for a boss to belittle employees, reacting emotionally can prompt you to do something you will regret.

“The cold, hard truth is that psychotic bosses and psychotic organizations do exist,” Mr. McKee said. “It’s up to you to handle the situation professionally and with dignity throughout.”

Q. Why do some bosses behave this way?

A. While it is possible that the boss just doesn’t like you, it is more likely that the behavior has nothing to do with you or your performance.

Robert Hogan, president and founder of Hogan Assessment Systems, a personality assessment company in Tulsa, Okla., said that bullying behavior could be prompted by just about anything, from a bad day to sagging earnings to pressure from upper management.

Insecurity could be the cause as well. Dr. Hogan, a retired psychology professor, noted that in some cases — for example, when a boss lacks extensive management experience — certain leaders may feel a need to assert themselves so that everyone knows who’s in charge.

“Feelings of inadequacy are common in the workplace,” Dr. Hogan said. “However you explain it, a boss who pokes fun of his subordinates like this is interpersonally insensitive.”

He noted that in rare cases, the intimidating behavior could also be caused by a much larger problem: chronic depression, a bipolar disorder or a drug or alcohol addiction, to name a few.

Q. How do you know whether your concern is legitimate?

A. Employees should never underestimate their feelings, particularly negative ones, according to Marty Linsky, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. So if the boss’s behavior is causing you to feel stress, there may well be something behind it, Mr. Linsky said.

There is always the possibility that you are overreacting and that things are not as bad as you perceive them to be. If you feel the need to confirm your suspicions, ask around. First, get opinions from friends and family members. Next, discuss the matter with trusted colleagues after hours or during your lunch break.

Richard Moran, a partner at Venrock Associates, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif., said you should be careful not to make people think that you are gossiping or speaking ill of the boss behind his or her back. “You’re just verifying that it’s not your imagination,” Mr. Moran said. “Don’t put yourself in danger of making the situation even worse.”

Mr. Moran added that employees who felt victimized by the boss’s bad behavior should keep a log of offensive comments, to establish evidence of a pattern.

Q. Should you talk to the boss about his or her behavior?

A. Absolutely. The safest approach is to schedule a meeting in advance. Request that it be one on one, and provide examples of comments that have upset you.

Erika Andersen, founder of Proteus International, a management training firm in Minneapolis, says that it is important to speak calmly and without accusation, to prevent the boss from becoming defensive.

“It may be tempting to try to communicate how bad it made you feel,” said Ms. Andersen, author of “Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People Into Extraordinary Performers” (Portfolio, 2006). “Even though it may have affected you, just stick to, ‘Here’s what you did.’ ”

Of course, an old-fashioned facedown is not unheard-of, but because the boss holds more power, being directly confrontational is very risky.

Q. What risks do you run by pressing the issue in a reasonable way?

A. Particularly if a boss is insecure, talking about the inappropriate behavior could redouble an inclination to assert control.

Paul L. Stepanovich, associate professor of management at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, said bosses might also take a form of passive-aggressive retaliation, like demoting a complaining employee or withholding a raise. “If a boss is toxic to begin with, it is not a leap to their being vindictive,” he said.

Termination is always a danger, as well. Because companies in most states offer employment at will, bosses can fire employees for any reason at any time.

Mr. Stepanovich noted that in rare cases, employees who were able to demonstrate a pattern of harassment might have a legal basis to fight their dismissal in court.

Q. At what point should you start searching for another job?

A. Try at least once to repair the situation, and if that doesn’t work, take your complaints to your company’s ombudsman or human resources department, or to your labor union. If the behavior continues beyond that, it may be time to consider asking for a transfer or to start circulating a résumé.

Dan Coughlin, president of the Coughlin Company, a consulting firm in Fenton, Mo., says that if your boss’s behavior has not changed after repeated requests, it is a good bet that it probably never will.

“Once it’s clear the situation isn’t going to improve, you need to get out while you still can,” Mr. Coughlin said. “Things seem bad now, but if you allow them to persist, the situation might ultimately damage your dignity, which could have a much more dramatic effect on your career long term.”

“Your Manager Is a Bully (but You Aren’t Helpless)” by MATT VILLANO, New York Times, CAREER COUCH, March 18, 2007


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