You're not alone: how to survive your horrible boss
In hindsight, Zoe regrets not heeding the red flags she noticed when interviewing for the office job she held for a year. “The CEO joked around a little bit inappropriately,” she recalls, “Also, I heard him yelling in his office when I was waiting for my interview to begin.”
Soon after she was hired, Zoe (whose name has been changed to protect her professionally) realized her boss hadn’t just been having a bad day; he was a bully and a big-time yeller.
“I think he thought that respect could be gained by being the loudest one in the room, and he yelled because he wanted to assert his dominance,” she says. Not that it worked. “It made it seem like he didn’t have control and didn’t actually know what was going on,” she adds.
There are, according to Dr Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, 25 common habits that can qualify a boss as a bully. Of this list, most bad bosses mix several nasty traits to create their own particular flavor of intolerability. Zoe’s boss, for example, embodied a spicy blend of “exhibiting presumably uncontrollable mood swings”, “making verbal put-downs” and “yelling, screaming and throwing tantrums”.
Zoe hadn’t experienced anything like her boss’s temper before. She remained silent as he ranted, often about things that had practically nothing to do with her work, like how annoyed he was that the coffee machine was malfunctioning, or that her whole generation was lazy and selfish. When he finished, she returned to her desk and struggled to regain her calm and focus for the rest of the day.
It wasn’t long before the stress Zoe felt from being yelled at began to affect her personal life.
“It taxed my relationship with my boyfriend horribly,” she says. “He spent a year listening to me cry and scream and get out all of my negative emotions that should have been aimed at my boss, and unfortunately it burnt him out, and it burnt out the whole relationship.”
Zoe quickly realized she had more to lose. “I had lost energy for almost all the things that I loved doing,” she says. “I realized I was losing who I was because I was so unhappy.”
She soon quit.
For those who have never had an abusive boss, Zoe’s story may sound shocking – but situations like hers are not uncommon: half of both the US and UK workforces report having left a job because of a boss who yelled at or otherwise tormented employees.
A 2017 study on abusive supervision found that people who have worked with a bullying boss report being more withdrawn and depressed, and that targets of abusive supervision report symptoms that bear “striking similarities to those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder”.
Research has long supported a link between workplace abuse and negative consequences for employees – if your boss is antagonistic, you’re more likely to have anxiety and stress headaches, and lose sleep and your ability to concentrate. A new study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and public Health even found people coping with workplace abuse had a heightened risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
In some cases, workplace abuse can be contagious within an organization. For instance, in 2013, the Journal of Applied Psychology found American soldiers in Iraq were more likely to admit to hitting and kicking innocent civilians and were less likely to report misdeeds by others when their supervisors were also cruel to them.
According to the author and Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green, young or new employees can be especially impressionable: “If you have someone modeling how to manage while yelling, there is a high risk that [new managers] are going to pick that up as well,” she says. “People get their cues of what is and isn’t acceptable from their managers and treating someone badly simply because you have power over them is pretty abusive.”
It’s easy to understand how victims of a bully boss can incur personal costs and lose their confidence and productivity. Yet new research from Villanova University reveals that it’s not just workers who suffer when their boss is abusive – it may come as a relief to learn that bad managers themselves face consequences for being insufferable jerks.
“What we found is that the abusive boss is significantly hurt by their own behaviors,” says the lead researcher, Dr Manuela Priesemuth. “They actually lose their social worth, which is basically feeling valued and appreciated by other people. And because they miss this crucial component of self-worth, they’re also going to perform worse at their work.” Basically, if you treat people badly they’re not going to like you, and for social creatures like humans, being disliked is hurtful and disadvantageous.
Is that good news? Well … kind of. Priesemuth found “many managers realize the social costs of their behavior and stop – unless they have psychopathic tendencies”.
Psychopaths, Priesemuth explains, “don’t really care about social worth because they don’t really care about other people.” If your abusive boss belongs to the 15% of bad bosses who Priesemuth determined are psychopaths, that’s “very bad”, she says.
So let’s consider the worst-case scenario: what do you do if you are working with someone you suspect is pathologically callous, and, for whatever reason, you are unable or unwilling to simply quit?
“I would start by asking – am I safe having a gentle, backstage conversation with this person about their behavior?” says Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and author of 2017’s The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People who Treat You Like Dirt. “And if you don’t feel safe, then who in your network can you recruit to confront this person with you?”
If confrontation is not going to fly, Sutton suggests what he calls “mind tricks to save your soul”: essentially cognitive behavioral therapy tactics involving mentally reframing a threat to reduce its impact.
One such trick is just to see the existential absurdity of your torment in the context of the fleeting nature of time. “When something’s unpleasant, you remind yourself that this is just temporary, and that ‘when I look back at this, a year or two from now, it’ll just be nothing’,” says Sutton.
Yet if the idea of needing to dissociate from your dreary plight as a beleaguered office grub just to survive seems a little too soul-destroying to be a viable solution, studies suggest you can, in fact, fight fire with fire. Research from 2014 found that employees with hostile bosses are better off when they respond with passive aggression.
The study, conducted by Professor Bennett Tepper of Ohio State University, found that employees who responded passive-aggressively to their abhorrent bosses by ignoring them, feigning ignorance of the cause of their rage, or just giving a half-hearted effort were “less likely to see themselves as victims”.
When employees retaliate against bad bosses, they suffered less psychological distress and job dissatisfaction. What’s more, these employees didn’t feel like their reciprocal hostility negatively affected their careers – rather, Tepper posits they may in fact enjoy increased admiration from their colleagues, thereby becoming more committed to their workplace.
Handling an abusive boss, then, is not unlike dealing with a schoolyard bully: if you can’t walk away or remain unbothered by their antics, it may be best to fight back.