What to do if your boss is a bully

Bullying and harassment in the workplaceFirst, realise that being bullied has nothing to do with who you are and your capabilities.

Your worth remains despite what you are told or what they do to you. This can be very difficult to remember, especially if the bullying, harassment, or mobbing is intense and persistent.

And you can cope by:

Understanding yourself

Don’t blame yourself for the situation. Even if you have made a mistake or said something unfortunate when stressed. Bullies are very good at sensing other people’s insecurities. And sometimes we lack poise as it is impossible to be always confident.

Think about what your voice and body posture are like when you are confident. Look in the mirror. Then practise your confident voice and body posture so you can use it when you next interact with your manager.  

What contribution have you made to the situation? We make mistakes when stressed. Think about what thoughts went through your head, what you said and did. What is your learning and what do you need to let go of? How could you respond differently next time? Practise and rehearse your new script, but not so much that you don’t adapt and pay attention to what is different in the new situation.

Change your approach

It is unlikely that you can change the behaviour of your boss. But you can alter how you respond to them, and this can lead to them adapting their actions. For example, instead of saying nothing when they wrongly criticise your work, ask them to explain and write their comments so you can learn. Remember to speak with assertiveness and confidence. Bullies will be wary of writing their inaccurate comments. You must maintain this new stance for it to work and change the bully’s behaviour. 

Maintain your health and wellbeing

Being bullied, especially by a manager, can adversely influence your lifestyle and approach to work. We close off, forget to look after self and maintain our professionalism.

Stop and think about what how you used to look after yourself, eating and hydrating, sleeping, etc. Attempt to be healthy, perhaps place some reminders around you.

It might be difficult to work well. High levels of stress, anxiety and worry can interfere with our skills, such as paying attention and focusing. Look at your coping strategies. Make sure they help, not make the situation worse. Learn to breathe properly.

Think about how you have been working. What will help you relax and work more effectively? You could try to limit how much contact you have with your manager if they are someone who calls and emails incessantly.

Speaking to a counsellor or clinical psychologist may help. Their advantage is that they can listen, help you assess, and plan what you could do to cope. It may help to speak to a staff representative or someone from the internal justice system if one exists.

Understand the actions of the bully

Bullies are often insecure or jealous. A very few have qualities that indicate they are a sociopath or Machiavellian. Some may not know any better or are being bullied themselves. We can try to understand why they are bullying, but we should not make it a focus of our attention.

We must not demonise them, however. Doing so gives them power over you. And they will have some positive qualities.

Review the power dynamics

The power dynamics of the situation will not be in your favour. Work out how much power and influence you have compared to your boss? How much power do they think they have? These factors determine what you could do. Sometimes silence, while reminding yourself of your own worth, is the best answer. You can act if you have sufficient strength and power.

Just in case

You decide to seek redress and justice. Always keep a record of what is happening. Make sure you store it in a safe place. This may help if you decide to act.

If you choose to take further action, ensure you feel strong enough. What help and support do you need to pursue justice? How prepared are you to wait as resolution can take time? What is the risk of retaliation? If the chances are high, then your employer should take steps to protect you.

Managers should not bully. Organisations have a corporate responsibility to ensure this does not happen. The reality is different. Remember, self-respect comes from within and endures regardless of how people treat you.

Anna EliatambyAbout the author

Anna Eliatamby, clinical psychologist, workplace well-being expert and editor: Healthy Leadership and Organisations: Beyond The Shadow Side. £14.99.

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