The role of the leader, or boss, is becoming more and more important in today’s complex world. We now have multiple generations working alongside each other, increasing reliance on technology, requiring additional learning, diminishing resources and organizational perks, and an increase in stress, burnout, and employees behaving badly.

For organizations to succeed, they need strong, resilient leaders who can mitigate these complexities and inspire a collective team of employees who are all aligned and moving towards a common goal.

The reality is that we don’t equip leaders with the skills they need to lead their teams; don’t hire the right people to lead; and don’t remove a bad leader even when they’ve annihilated their team.

We continue to put up with ill equipped, overly tough, and bully bosses.

According to the American Psychology Association, 75% of workers in the United States believe that their bosses are a major cause of stress in the workplace.

50% of employees with bully bosses are prone to health problems.

The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 59% of all bullies in the workplace ARE bosses.

The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 59% of all bullies in the workplace ARE bosses. Click to Tweet

Wow! We do have a problem.

If you fall into one of the statistics above, you know what I’m talking about.

While working for an ill-equipped or tough boss can make your life miserable at times, working for a bully boss is a nightmare! Therefore, it’s important that you first figure out what type of boss you are working for.

How do you know the difference between a tough manager, ill-equipped leader, or a bully boss?

Ill-equipped leader

These bosses tend to be clueless about how to lead people.  They don’t necessarily have any ill intent, but because they are not skilled as a leader they tend to make bad decisions and give bad advice. These bosses tend to micromanage their people or simply let them run amuck. They avoid conflict and tend to stay in their offices all day even while the unit is drowning. They avoid making decisions, and set a poor example for professionalism. Ill-equipped leaders may be poor communicators and don’t consistently invest in developing their staff.

I was an ill equipped leader once.

Many years ago, I was hired as a manager on a very large medsurg unit. I had no prior management experience and found myself managing a dysfunctional unit that couldn’t keep leaders more than a year. I was completely and totally unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the avalanche of daily crises that occurred among my staff. I only lasted a year and a half and felt like a failure back then. Now that I’m older, wiser, and more equipped, I realized that I did not have the skill set to properly manage my unit. I was capable; had potential, but wasn’t skilled.

Tough manager

These bosses have a high directive communication style. They usually avoid small talk and get right to the point. Where I always advocate starting meetings with something positive, tough bosses tend to just get down to business. Their conversations are peppered with words that reflect results and outcomes. They may be less forgiving when you make mistakes but won’t necessarily chastise you about it or in front of others.  Although hard on their people, they do focus on working WITH their employees – not against them. They may be tough on everyone but they are equally as tough on themselves.

Some experts say that working for a tough boss, especially when starting out in your career, is a good thing. That pushing you (or sometimes forcing you) to focus on results; on winning or achieving stretch goals early on will pave the road to ongoing success versus a boss who is warm and fuzzy but who doesn’t necessarily push their employees towards achievement.

I know this because I dabble in leadership coaching as a “bully expert” (I’ve come a long way haven’t I?). Therefore, from time to time, I’ve helped a “tough boss” be less tough while not compromising their commitment for excellence in the process.  

Bully bosses

They are focused on gaining power and maintaining personal control over others. Bully bosses tend to undermine people’s confidence. They can be overly aggressive, narcissistic and may steal credit from their employees. Many bully bosses believe they are above the rules and regulations within a workplace just because of their title.

Bully bosses are self-serving and will not hesitate to throw their employees under the bus to protect themselves. They tend to be threatened by competent, self-assured employees and may even find ways to downplay their accomplishments, will go out of their way to find fault, and may resort to sabotaging their career.

“I have the power to make or break you here.” Is something a bully boss would say.

Bully bosses lie and withhold information when it serves them. They use intimidation as a powerful weapon and may even threaten disciplinary action or termination if you don’t comply or “obey” them. They create environments where employees walk on eggshells due to unexplained mood swings. They show favoritism openly and purposely ignore staff they don’t like.

Bully bosses instill shame, guilt and blame and never take responsibility for the role they play.

Whatever type of boss you have, it’s important to manage the relationship and set boundaries.

Whatever type of boss you have, it’s important to manage the relationship and set boundaries. Click to Tweet
  • GAIN PERSPECTIVE

Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. Try to see the situation through their eyes. What external pressures could they be struggling with? Are they dealing with any personal issues? When appropriate, ask your boss about their stressors. This works well for a tough or ill-equipped boss. Not so well with a bully boss.

  • CONSIDER THE ROLE YOU PLAY

It’s also important that you turn the mirror back on yourself and take a good look at the role YOU play in the relationship. I’m certainly not suggesting that you’re to blame for your boss’s behavior, but in every relationship – good, bad, or ugly – each person does contribute in some way.  Are you deliberately pushing their buttons, knowing that they will react? Are you communicating in a way that could be perceived as passive-aggressive? Are you following through on the commitments you make to your boss? Are you meeting expectations?  Again, this isn’t as helpful if you are working for a bully boss.

  • SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES

If you’re working for a tough manager or bully boss, set clear boundaries regarding interactions. For example, if you’re boss tends to criticize you openly in front of other people, tell your boss (privately) that while you are willing to listen to their feedback, you are NOT willing to do so in public. If you just stand there and take it without saying a word and without following up with them about it, you are essentially telling them that it’s okay to treat you that way. 

  • FIGHT

If you are one of the 75% of employees who believe their boss is stressing them out, you may want to fight back. The best way to do this is by starting a documentation trail. I’ve written a lot about how to document, but the key here is to be very clear in your documentation about how your boss’s behavior is violating standards and negatively impacting the workplace. Get a copy of your policy. Use the language in that policy. Document, document, document! Then when you’ve gathered enough evidence (usually 6 weeks worth or more), file a formal complaint with your HR department.

  • LEAVE

If you’re one of the 50% who are suffering health problems because of your boss – leave. Seriously. You only have one life. It’s just not worth it.

For more help to stop a bully boss, click here.

Bosses (managers, leaders) are supposed to be skilled, encouraging, and a role model for professional behavior. But the reality is, sometimes they are not. Knowing that you spend more time at work than you do at home sometimes, it behooves you to take action if you find yourself working for someone who isn’t equipped, way too tough, or is a bully. 

Have you ever worked for an ill equipped, tough, or bully boss? I’m curious…how did you handle it? I’d love to read your comments about this topic below.

Take care. Be kind. Stay connected.