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Tough Manager or Tyrant? When the Boss Is a Bully, or Worse

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Aww, good morning, Sunshine!  What a way to break a person's spirit.

Aww, good morning, Sunshine! What a way to break a person's spirit.

Know the Difference: Tough Manager, Bully, or Illegal Harasser?

Managers can build you up or break your spirit. However, when it comes to bad ones, there are key differences among tough managers, bullies, and illegal harassers. If you think you work for one of them, it is important to be able to tell the difference so you can make the right choices for yourself.

Does he make you feel like this—dreading another day at work?

Does he make you feel like this—dreading another day at work?

The Tough Manager

A manager who is being demanding in addressing an employee's legitimate performance issues is simply doing his job, provided that the feedback he offers is professional.

The tough manager wants to drive performance, but he (or she) comes across as overbearing in his approach. He may lament privately that the employee is unwilling to take sufficient personal responsibility for performance shortfalls.

However, this is a manager who has not effectively persuaded his employee of the legitimacy of that employee's performance gap, or he has neglected other key communication factors.

The tough manager wants to drive performance but may lack some skill.

The tough manager wants to drive performance but may lack some skill.

Got Skills?

When a manager is less skilled in providing negative performance feedback, an employee may trust neither the manager nor the message. The manager harms his credibility when he doesn't plan the conversation, issues overly general feedback, or shows frustration.

Additionally, the manager harms his credibility when he criticizes the employee publicly, waits too long to address a performance gap, or engages in monologue with no employee buy-in. What results, then, is a pattern of increasingly tougher performance messages in order to get his initial point across. Both sides become irritated, and the relationship suffers.

A manager can harm his credibility when he doesn't plan his feedback conversation, issues overly general feedback, or shows a lot of frustration towards the employee.

A manager can harm his credibility when he doesn't plan his feedback conversation, issues overly general feedback, or shows a lot of frustration towards the employee.

Effective Feedback

If a manager genuinely seeks to coach an employee to higher levels of performance, he should offer feedback that is reasonable, specific (i.e., supported by examples), and incorporates an active path for improvement.

Delivery should be respectful, private, and timely. Conversation must be two-way so the employee has buy-in, and it should allow the employee an opportunity to voice his perspective and clarify his understanding.

When a tough manager delivers feedback fairly in this way, he communicates that he has the employee's best interests at heart.

Reader Poll: The Bully Boss

Yelling is a big sign your boss is a bully.

Yelling is a big sign your boss is a bully.

The Bully Boss

The Bully Boss, in contrast, is a super-sized version of the school yard bully. Self-interested, he feels envious and threatened by an employee's competence or likability.

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Read More From Toughnickel

The Bully Boss seeks to undermine and destabilize the employee to regain control. He adopts a targeted pattern of psychological aggression, abusing his power through repeated efforts to intentionally threaten and demean his "target" (i.e., the employee who becomes the focus of his negative attention).1

Temper, temper. The Bully Boss uses fear, smoke, and mirrors to control his target.

Temper, temper. The Bully Boss uses fear, smoke, and mirrors to control his target.

Fear, Smoke, and Mirrors

Above all, the Bully Boss fears being exposed. Compare him to The Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz"—that little, trembling man who hid behind a large curtain of flames, bellowing demands.2

Managing the target becomes a manipulative game of confidence and control for the Bully Boss. Intending to inflict harm, he uses aggressive tactics that are repeated, enduring, and increasing in severity.3 His approach may include:

  • setting unrealistic demands and deadlines; overwork
  • micromanaging the "what" and "how" of the target's job
  • displaying nonverbal hostility (e.g., stares, glares, eye rolls, refusal to make eye contact)
  • scapegoating
  • treating subordinates inconsistently
  • swearing and/or yelling at the target and
  • isolating the target socially, physically, or informationally.
Managing the target becomes a manipulative game of confidence and control for the Bully Boss.  It's all about power.

Managing the target becomes a manipulative game of confidence and control for the Bully Boss. It's all about power.

Around 26% of bullying is accounted for by 1% of the employee population, those who are Corporate Psychopaths.

— Journal of Business Ethics

Exploiting Power

The Bully Boss exploits the power that his management position provides him, knowing that he largely controls the terms and conditions of his target's employment. He understands that as a manager he can make the target's job satisfying ... or pure hell, and he effectively leverages this to his advantage.

The manager can substantially impact many aspects of his subordinate's work: job assignments, availability of resources, access to training, vacation and time off, discipline, compensation, performance ratings, and promotions.

If it feels like this, you've got trouble. True power mongers exploit their role, knowing that as managers they control the terms and conditions of employees' work.

If it feels like this, you've got trouble. True power mongers exploit their role, knowing that as managers they control the terms and conditions of employees' work.

A Master at Manipulation

Being a master manipulator, the bully may have endeared himself to HR or other decision makers to whom his target may complain. He may deceive them into being accomplices by planting gossip in the organization that the employee is a performance issue, not a team player, or is otherwise an undesirable employee. In this way, the Bully Boss seeks to inoculate himself against potential complaints.

Additionally, he may recruit subordinates to support him in generating complaints against the employee.4 These employees may cooperate in the smear campaign against the target, either because they are naïve, or they fear that if they do not, they could be next.

It is not unusual to see a Bully Boss with a history of previous targets. Without swift and decisive intervention by the company, the situation often degenerates at the expense of the target's mental and physical health, as well as their career.

Bullies and bad bosses can take all forms—young, old, male, or female.

Bullies and bad bosses can take all forms—young, old, male, or female.

Mental Health and Bully Behavior

Emerging research suggests linkages between psychopathology and such Bully Boss behavior. One study found that "around 26% of bullying is accounted for by 1% of the employee population, those who are Corporate Psychopaths."5

Psychopaths are distinguished by a syndrome of personality attributes: charm, charisma, fearlessness, ruthlessness, narcissism, persuasiveness, and a lack of conscience.6

While such attributes make psychopaths potentially treacherous to interact with, they also position them well for success in today's super-competitive business climate, according to Kevin Dutton, Ph.D., author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.