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How to Deal With a Difficult or Bullying Boss

By Mark Goddard | Psychology | Rating:

Dealing with anger and aggression is never pleasant. Unfortunately, many of us do so on a daily basis: in shop queues, traffic jams, packed commuter trains, even the family home. But an angry boss is different. In any other situation, you can stand your ground; oppose your boss, however, and they can make life a misery.

Anger or Bullying?

First, anger must be distinguished from bullying or persecution. A manager may yell at his PA on a daily basis and yet sincerely like and respect her. She in turn accepts his bad moods, recognising that that's just the way he is, and that underneath he is decent and kind. Obviously his behavior is inappropriate, but he may be unaware of it.

If he is conscious, he may be sorry, adding that he just cannot cope with stress. Indeed, many workers, especially those in high-pressure environments, like Accident and Emergency departments or expensive restaurants, accept anger and shouting as part of the job. Some give as good as they get and, when the shift is over, boss and employee apologize to one another with a shrug and a smile, aware that the tension has to be eased somehow.

Bullies, on the other hand, tend to be calm and calculating. If you think back to your school days, you may remember that even the most aggressive child rarely inflicted the same damage as the spiteful or bitchy one. And, unlike a stressed Surgeon or Head Chef, the bully's spite is personal. Angry people lash out in moments of stress and then forget; bullies systematically destroy their victim.

A concrete example may help. Imagine you work in the administration department of a shipping company. Your manager has an office just down the corridor. One day, you have to leave early for a dentist appointment. Your boss happens to come into the room as you are putting on your coat and asks you where you are going. You explain and he erupts in anger, "are you kidding me? You know we're behind with our orders! Why can't you go over the weekend?" Before you can reply, he turns to your colleagues and yells "...and I'm sick of coming in here to find you lot late back from lunch or gossiping about your vacation. I'm getting flak from my boss too you know!" Then he storms out.

Now imagine a different scenario. In comes your boss and asks where you are going. You explain and he replies "oh, of course, allow me to make way," stepping aside with exaggerated politeness and bowing his head. When your co-workers snigger, he grins at them. Then, as you move to the door, he adds "don't worry, we'll pick up the slack. Everyone knows the whole business revolves around you."


First, you must understand why your boss is behaving in this way. Once you do, you may find their anger both easier to tolerate and easier to forestall. People experience anger for all sorts of reasons. Begin by finding out a little about them. What is their background? Did they grow up in a poor or deprived area? Anger often stems from abuse and neglect suffered in childhood.

Insecurity and self-doubt are also common reasons. Indeed, aggression is often used to mask such insecurity. Many people, even those who appear confident, suffer in this way. Again, it might be explained by a lack of love or interest in childhood. Or maybe they are insecure about their appearance (the short boss who asserts his authority through anger and aggression is well known) or lack of education.

Stress is probably the most common cause. For some people, a single mistake can cost lives for which they would be responsible. So it is hardly surprising when a firefighter, senior surgeon, or leader of an undercover police operation, explodes over laziness and incompetence.

Others are promoted too young, or without sufficient training and experience. Your boss may herself be the victim of an angry and hectoring superior. Or maybe her own manager is incompetent, or takes credit for her work and shifts responsibility when things go wrong. When someone feels unsupported, stress and anger are inevitable.

Others are angry for personal reasons. For example, your boss's daughter develops addiction problems. She leaves the family home and moves in with an abusive boyfriend. Her mother is frightened and worried. All day long these thoughts preoccupy her and she is tense and distracted. Her employees, however, see nothing but a rude and irate monster. Such examples could of course be multiplied. Your boss may have recently lost his father to cancer, or found out that his wife has been cheating on him, etc. As you may know from your own life, it can take years to recover from such things.

None of this justifies their behavior, but understanding may help you to cope. Once you grasp that their anger is motivated by self-doubt, for example, you can try not to make them feel inferior. When you realize that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress, you can tread more softly. And when you realize they feel intimidated by your education, you can try never to mention your time at college or the books you've read. If they are struggling with personal problems, like a failing marriage or addicted child, you can steer clear of anything that may touch a nerve.


If you are to stand your ground against an angry or aggressive boss, you need a clean conscience. In other words, you need to be sure that their anger is unjustified. Someone who knows she cuts corners and does the bare minimum will find that this undermines her ability to fight back. When you know you work hard, on the other hand, and that you always make an effort to be polite, you will expect fair treatment in return.

And expectations matter. Remember, just because someone is paying your wages, that does not give them the right to scream and yell at you. And in any case, such behavior is hardly professional or productive. Who ever inspired someone by shouting at them? They are also abusing their position. After all, they probably don't yell at their equals, and they certainly do not yell at their own superior. Keep this firmly in mind the next time they explode.

Many people lack self-awareness. Quite frankly, your boss may have no idea how he appears to others. In fact, he may be surprised, and even upset, to hear that you find him intimidating. For a lot of people, anger is as natural as breathing. Maybe they were raised in an angry environment, one in which people constantly yelled and fought. Consequently, what you consider inappropriate and what they consider inappropriate may not be the same.

So you could start by calmly pointing out that they seem angry. Try not to accuse them of anything; if you do, they will grow defensive (plus, of course, they may fear that you intend to report them). Wait until they seem in a good mood and then start slowly, maybe asking if anything is wrong. If they say no, they will probably want to know why you ask. Explain, adding that their anger unnerves you, that you don't think it's justified, and that far from making you work harder it is turning you into a nervous wreck.

Only you know the kind of person you are dealing with. Some respond well to being taken aside, others do not. It may be better to confront them as they cool down from a recent outburst. The key is highlighting their behavior without provoking them. Simply look them in the face, without fear or shrinking, and say "I seem to be annoying you. I don't know why after all, I work extremely hard."

If their anger is mixed with sarcasm, reply "you know, rudeness and sarcasm are not going to make me work any harder," or "being sarcastic isn't a great way to motivate people." Again, they may be surprised. And though they may not take it well, it will be on their mind the next time they lose their temper.

Finally, get to know their triggers. Some people are generally easy going and polite. They may be able to tolerate someone coming in late, for example, or even a bit of gossiping, so long as you are efficient and polite to the customers. Often, people become fixated on something trivial, like messy desks or long toilet breaks.

Assertiveness Techniques

Finally, it is worth learning the basics of assertiveness. Obviously, this in itself will not make you brave and confident. It might, however, make you more effective. And the more effective you are, the more confident you will feel.

Begin by working on your body language. Some will tell you to fight fire with fire and to yell back at them. But if your body language becomes aggressive (teeth bared, fists clenched, moving into their personal space, etc), your boss is likely to feel outraged, even threatened. And he may also feel the need to reassert his or her authority: to humble or break you in front of your co-workers.

Submissive body language, on the other hand, can be irritating and equally provocative. So don't avert your eyes, lower your chin, or shrink away. Instead, keep your chin up, put your shoulders back, and look them straight in the eyes. But do not puff out your chest or try to stare them out. Just be calm and self-contained.

If you do confront them, be sure to use plenty of "I-statements." This is especially important when dealing with anger. Many people go on the offensive, calling their boss names and accusing them of behaving outrageously. But no one likes to be accused of things especially not those already in a bad mood.

Instead, focus on how their behavior affects you. So, rather than saying "you are so bullying and overbearing," say "I never respond well to threats and intimidation. It antagonizes me and makes it impossible for me to concentrate." And when you say these things, keep your voice firm and clear but level and calm.

The "broken record" is another highly effective technique. Essentially, you say your piece and then add nothing. If your boss begins yelling all over again, just calmly and clearly repeat what you said, once again adding nothing. Obviously, you can combine this with the assertive body language and I-statements.

For example, let's imagine that you finish work at 5:30 and have promised to be home on time for your daughter's birthday. Your boss comes in at 5:20 in a dreadful mood, yelling at one of your co-workers before dumping a pile of letters on your desk and asking you to type them up. You reply that you can't, that you promised to be home for your daughter's birthday and plan to leave on time. He yells that he doesn't care, that this is your job, and that we all have to make sacrifices. Reply, calmly and clearly, with your chin up and shoulders back, "like I said, I can't. I promised my daughter I'd be home on time."

Dealing with anyone in a rage is difficult. Indeed, we evolved to back away from such people especially large men. But no one has the right to scare or intimidate you, even if they don't mean to. Only by confronting them will you end it. And that takes courage.

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