Tough Manager or Tyrant? When the Boss Is a Bully, or Worse
Does Your Boss Break Your 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.
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.
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.
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
Have you ever experienced a bully boss?
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.
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
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)
- treating subordinates inconsistently
- swearing and/or yelling at the target and
- isolating the target socially, physically, or informationally.
Should bullying in the workplace be illegal?
Around 26% of bullying is accounted for by 1% of the employee population, those who are Corporate Psychopaths.— Journal of Business Ethics
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, Then You've Got Trouble
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.
Women Can Be Bullies, Too
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. Accordingly, the top professions that attract psychopaths are often those with high power and capacity for influence: CEO, lawyer, media (television/radio), salesperson, surgeon, journalist, police officer, clergy person, chef, and civil servant.
Your Bully Is "Empathy Challenged"
All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing.— Edmund Burke
Not all bullies are psychopaths, of course. However, if you're dealing with a Bully Boss, chances are they run very low on empathy, the ability to understand and identify with another person's perspective, feelings and challenges.
While bullying represents psychological abuse of an employee, simply being a Bully Boss is not against the law in the United States. Attempts to introduce anti-bullying employment legislation have thus far failed to materialize.7
Not Illegal Behavior ... Yet
HR departments tend to be reluctant to label a manager a "bully" and take decisive action precisely because it is not illegal behavior. In addition, bullying is often a matter of perception. For example, one person's definition of scapegoating can be another's version of not taking personal accountability.
Unless a target is well supported by documentation and corroborating witnesses when he complains, bullying is all too easy to explain away as mere miscommunication, differences in personality or work style, or the subordinate's poor performance.
Complaints are more likely to be successful when targets reference a specific violation of company policy and have witnesses and documentation to support them. Targets who have encountered health-related effects sometimes also complain of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Illegal Harassment: Hate Based On Demographics
Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.— Leonardo da Vinci
The Illegal Harasser
Hate Based On Demographics
Whereas the Bully Boss is motivated by personal malice towards an employee (e.g., jealousy), The Illegal Harasser is motivated by disdain of a given demographic category.
He may scorn the target because she is female or disabled or African American, for example. These, however, are legally protected demographic or personal factors. If an employee complains of this type of bullying, an employer must take notice by investigating promptly and taking appropriate corrective action.
Discrimination and Harassment
By harassing an employee, such a boss is potentially engaging in employment discrimination, in violation of civil rights statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), or Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
Harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information."8
Specific state and sometimes local laws outline additional legally protected factors, so check the Equal Employment Opportunity laws in your particular area. (State equal employment opportunity commissions may be called the state Division on Civil Rights, the Department of Human Rights or similar titles.)
Hey, Eyes Up Here, Fella
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), examples of illegally harassing behaviors that are based on one's sex, race, or other protected category include unwelcome
- jokes, slurs, epithets and name calling
- threats, intimidation, and physical assaults
- ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs
- offensive objects or pictures, and
- interference with work performance.
Stand Up For Yourself
According to the EEOC, harassment becomes unlawful when an employee must
- put up with this offensive behavior in order to keep his job, or
- the harasser's conduct is so severe or persistent that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Minor and one-off comments or incidents of teasing are considered rude and unprofessional. However, they typically do not rise to the level of illegal harassment.
Anti-discrimination laws forbid harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in an investigation, proceeding or a lawsuit, or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe are discriminatory.
Refer to the EEOC's website for more information on illegal workplace harassment (including sexual harassment) which can be committed by supervisors and others. Knowing the difference between the Illegal Harasser, Bully Boss and Tough Manager is an important part of flourishing in the face of adversity.
Take Care Of Your Own Needs
Additional Reading On HR Issues In the Workplace
- What HR Won't Tell You About Employee Complaint Investigations
An insider's view on what company politics, recordkeeping, privacy, data security, and communication effectiveness have to do with HR Investigations. Read this before you file an employee complaint.
- How to Deal with A Mentally Ill Coworker
Mental illness affects 1 in 4 American adults at any point in time. Learn how to effectively manage your work relationships when someone you work with is mentally ill.
- How To Tell If You Are the Office Jerk
Know a workplace jerk? Print the article and leave it on his or her desk. Nice hint! Recognize common jerk behaviors and resolve to change your own interpersonal nastiness at work.
- Job Burnout: Frazzled, Fed Up and Running On Empty
Job burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion created by chronic stress. Learn its signs and symptoms, causes, and tips for dealing with it.
- Office Mean Girl: Memories of a Workplace Bully
When I landed my dream job in HR for a Fortune 500 company, there was one small catch, the Office Mean Girl (OMG). Despite backbiting, exclusion, and personal attacks, eventually I flourished.
- Time to Take Action: When the Boss is a Bully, or Worse
Ready to take action? Read the second of this two-part series: "Time to Take Action: When the Boss is a Bully, or Worse."
1UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line. "What is bullying? Types of bullying, bullies tactics, how bullies select their victims, the difference between bullying and harassment." Bully OnLine. Accessed October 19, 2012. http://www.bullyonline.org/workbully/bully.htm
2Johnson, Whitney, "Bullying is a confidence game." July 13, 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/07/bullying-is-a-confidence-game/. (Accessed March 5, 2013).
3"Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior." Labor & Industries (L&I), Washington State, April, 2011. Accessed March 4, 2013. http://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Research/Files/Bullying.pdf.
4"Bullying of Academics in Higher Education: Why Does [ACADEMIC] Mobbing Take Place?" Bullying of Academics in Higher Education. Last modified October 14, 2008. http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com/2008/10/why-does-academic-mobbing-take-place.html.
5Boddy, Clive R. "Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace." Journal of Business Ethics 100, no. 3 (2010): 367-379.
6Dutton, Kevin. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
7Namie, Gary. "The Healthy Workplace Bill - Workplace Bullying Legislation for the U.S." The Workplace Bullying Institute. Accessed March 4, 2013. http://www.healthyworkplacebill.org/bill.php.
8Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Harassment." EEOC Home Page. Accessed March 4, 2013. http://www.eeoc.gov/.
Questions & Answers
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