When Your Boss Is a Bully: What Can You Do?

August 19, 2017

She’s 34 years old and 10 months into her job at a design company and she’s beginning to flag because dealing with her direct superior, Karena, is wearing her out. “Is being made to feel small or lousy a management style?” she asks, with a wry smile. “My boss seems to think so. Mind you, this isn’t personal—she does it to everyone—but, gee, the day-to-day is so nasty and wearing. If you ask a question, she makes a point of saying that a smart person wouldn’t ask it to begin with. She never compliments; she makes every criticism barbed. I know work can’t be fun, fun, fun all the time—that’s why it’s called work and not a vacation—but is it supposed to make you feel discouraged and flat?”

Does this sound familiar? It might because studies show that, indeed, bullying disguised as a management style and in-the-office incivility is on the rise. There are rules about sexual harassment and it’s pretty much impossible or too risky to date a colleague lest things go south and you get accused of harassment, but what about nastiness? Bullying? Or other behaviors that in any other context would be clearly called abusive. It turns out the workplace is pretty permissive when it comes to that.

Cecile, the employee in question, thought it over long and hard and finally decided to talk to one of the principals of the firm. She was careful not to personalize her criticism of her manager but made it clear that she found the way she was treated dispiriting and professionally counterproductive, giving multiple examples. The principal wasn’t surprised—she was well aware of the manager’s behavior—but allowed as how getting used to the firm was a learning curve. “No one flourishes here immediately,” she told Cecile, “It’s just a matter of getting used to how things are done here. We know Karena isn’t a piece of cake and she’s not the hand-holding type, not someone you’d call in a crisis or if you needed support, but she gets it done.” The underlying message was clear: “Suck it up if you want to stay. We’ll respect you for it – or maybe not—but it’s how we do things here.”

The choice was Cecile’s: Learn to live with a constant stream of disparagement, grow a thicker skin, and lower her expectations of what the workplace should be like—which is what she observed about colleagues who’d worked there for two or three years—or move on. Unless you happen to be a trust fund baby—in which case this piece doesn’t apply to you and you’ve already quit and are in the Seychelles, Santa Fe, or Paris—what do you need to know about toxic bosses to figure out what to do?

The state of the American workplace

The news is mixed in some ways, and surprisingly disheartening in others. The broadest study is offered up by the Rand Corporation since it includes all levels of education, socio-economic status, and everything from manufacturing work to white collar jobs. They report that nearly one in five American workers has a hostile or threatening social environment at work; the details vary in important ways by age, gender, and education. Not surprisingly, young women encounter unwanted sexual attention more frequently, while young men are subjected to more verbal abuse. It turns out that while humiliating behaviors and verbal abuse are directed more at younger men without college degrees, hostile experiences at work appear to be relatively evenly distributed, regardless of educational levels.

Additionally, work spilling over into personal time seems to have become the norm rather than the exception: Time pressures at work spill over into the personal lives of roughly half of American workers. Again, given the breadth of this survey, the spillover takes different forms, depending on the kind of work you do. College graduates take work home; those without college degrees deal with unpredictable changes in schedule which affect their home lives. As to management:  Some 58% of people said their bosses were supportive and almost as many said they had friends at work. Of course, that does mean that 42% of people work for bosses who don’t support them.

The psychology of the workplace

You know that expression “One bad apple spoils the bunch?” Well, if you’ve ever put one slightly too ripe apple with others in a bowl, you know it to be true of fruit (thanks to ethylene) but what about people? Yup, and the results, as studies show, are pretty disheartening. To use the example of Cecile and Karena, one Karena in the workplace—with the approval of her bosses—can change everything.

Even without the tacit approval of the boss, the “one bad apple thing” turns out to be true in the office. That’s what a study by Will Felps and colleagues which actually used the phrase in its title found. Consider that roughly half of the companies in the United States use teams and there’s been a slew of research which shows the phrase to be true. How can that be? It’s so counterintuitive: If a team has seven members, how can one person influence the other six negatively?

Felps and colleagues found that there were three kinds of behaviors that negatively impacted group functioning the most: withholding effort or slacking off; demonstrating negative affect; or being nasty and aggressive to other team members. Keep in mind that even someone who is technically your boss is often viewed as a leader of a team. The researchers found that responses to a bad apple were consistent. First, the others will try to change the person’s behavior. If that doesn’t work, they’ll move to reject him or her. But if they can’t get the person out—let’s say the bad apple is good at her or his job despite being horribly unpleasant or the boss doesn’t think civility matters as much as getting things done—they will get defensive and, yes, nasty themselves. Collegiality will disappear along with positive behavior.

Another study found that the effect of one uncooperative member on the group was much greater than the presence of a cooperative member. As another famous study put it, “Bad is Stronger than Good”—meaning that negative events influence us more than positive ones—and that’s true in group settings as well.

The rise of incivility

Studies show that incivility—defined as behavior meant to harm an individual in violation of mutual respect—has doubled over the past decades, suggesting once again that Karena, the supervisor in our original example, isn’t a lone wolf. Examples include using a condescending tone, ignoring coworkers, or making derogatory remarks. One study, conducted by Christopher C. Rosen and other, found that incivility begets more incivility: those who experienced incivility early in the day had diminished self-control which increased the likelihood of their demonstrating incivility to others. Negativity is contagious.

Figuring out whether you stay or leave

So do you have to put up with being put down or negative behavior? No, you don’t. Setting goals for yourself and deciding what you need to get from your working day in the future are key to making sure that your next job isn’t a mismatch. Your own priorities—both short and long-term—should be factored in as well. Studies show that the best way to set goals is actually to write them down, making a chart of both short and long-term priorities, and seeing how they fit—or don’t fit—together. If your primary goal is to make as much money as possible and a secondary goal is to have more leisure time, you need to recognize that there’s a great likelihood that these goals aren’t in sync.

On the other hand, if work environment and collegiality are tops on your desirable list, you will likely need to do some research and perhaps go on informational interviews to get the inside scoop. Sometimes, high job turnover can give you a pretty good bead on what’s really going on as well as sites such as Glassdoor which have reviews of companies.  When you do go on a formal interview, do ask about why the last person left the job you’re interviewing for; if the person won’t answer you directly, you already know a lot. Pay attention to what’s being emphasized and ask to see the offices too so you can see how people interact; this may feel pushy to you but it’s a normal request.

Your priorities are highly personal, and so it’s your task to know what does and doesn’t matter to you.

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