They verbally abuse you, humiliate you in front
of others. Maybe it'sbecause power hovers in the air, but
offices tend to bring out the bully in people. We offer
strategies for handling such bad bosses.
If the schoolyard is the stomping ground of
bully boys and bully girls, then the office is the playground
of adult bullies. Perhaps because power is the chief perk in
most companies, especially those with tight hierarchies,
offices can bring out the bully in people.
Everyone has a war story. There's the boss who
calls at 2 A.M. from Paris--just because he's there. The boss
who asks for your evaluation of a problem and then proceeds to
denigrate you and your opinion in front of the whole staff as
you seethe with hopefully hidden rage. "It's a demonstration
of power. It's demeaning," contends Harry Levinson, Ph.D., the
dean of organizational psychologists and head of the Levinson
Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts.
"I haven't studied office bullying
systematically," he says. In fact, no one has. Despite common
perceptions of its prevalence, it's essentially virgin tuff
for organizational psychology. Trouble is, organizational
psychologists are often called in at the highest level of
management; nowadays, most bullies are weeded out before they
get to the top.
Nevertheless, says Levinson, 40 years of
consulting have given him some idea of what they do and why.
They over-control, micromanage, and display contempt for
others, usually by repeated verbal abuse and sheer
exploitation. They constantly put others down with snide
remarks or harsh, repetitive, and unfair criticism. They don't
just differ with you, they differ with you contemptuously;
they question your adequacy and your commitment. They
humiliate you in front of others.
There are two kinds of bullies, observes
organizational psychologist Laurence Stybel, Ph.D., a
principal of Boston's Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire &
Associates: "Successful ones and unsuccessful ones. The latter
don't last long in organizations. The successful bullies
create problems, but they are competent"
Often they are very bright workers. And therein
lies the problem. They make a significant contribution to the
company as workers. They get promoted because of their
technical expertise. Then they wind up supervising others, and
spew on people in support functions, on competitors, perhaps
even their own bosses.
They are especially rampant in high-tech
companies, engineering firms, and financial organizations--a
stock fund manager doing an incredible job with investments,
for example. "The typical successful bully thinks, 'They won't
do anything to me--I'm the best they've got,"'Stybel says. But
sooner or later, it's too costly to tolerate their
It's getting too costly much sooner in most
companies. Stybel cites the example of a large New England
hospital where the bully is a brilliant physician who has been
the director of radiology for 11 years. The bullying was an
issue over the years--'m the exit interviews of departing
Why did the hospital decide to do something only
now? The administrator told Stybel: "We can't tolerate the
high turnover anymore. It's too costly in the face of managed
Occasionally, bullies do get to the very top.
Levinson points to Harold Geneen, the legendary head of ITT,
and coach Vince Lombardi. And then there's the issue of
Fortune magazine devoted every couple of years to America's
"toughest" bosses. Take the female CEO who reportedly yelled
at the executives of a division she felt was underperforming:
"You're eunuchs! How can your wives stand you? You've got
nothing between your legs!"
At least in large corporations, bullying is not
as blatant as it once was. "The John Wayne image of a leader
doesn't go over so well in the '90s" notes Pat Alexander of
the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North
Carolina. "It affects the efficiency of the entire
organization." Intimidation tends to be more polished.
While it's no longer cool to throw around your
authority, counterforces are leading to greater tolerance of
negative behavior. Stybel points to a growing 'What can you do
for me now?' stance. "There's a new generation of CEOs who
expect to be in place four years and move on. This fosters
emotional distancing from employees, an excessive focus on
transactions; it does not foster a positive relationship mode.
Companies are growing increasingly performance-oriented; do
they care how anyone feels about an executive's behavior?
"Where I have been retained, it's not because
they don't like bullies" notes Stybel. "Only the underlying
economics make it a dysfunctional behavior."
While bullies inhabit the middle ranks of large
concerns, they are positively thriving at small companies.
"There are lots of bad bosses out there,' says Atlanta-based
management consultant Neil Lewis, Ph.D. "In smaller companies
the quality of management is not as good as at large
companies. They're not professional managers."
Stybel warns workers not to focus on where
bullying comes from. "When observers see a boss behave as a
bully, they attribute it to trait characteristics. That may
not be the case. It's almost always a product of individual
history and make-up--and the company atmosphere. But who
cares? The most important thing is the behavior."
Bullies do a lot of damage in organizations.
They make subordinates run scared. They put people in a
protective mode, which interferes with the company's ability
to generate innovation. They don't build in perpetuation of
the organization, says Levinson. "It keeps you in a state of
psychological emergency. And add to it the rage you feel
towards the bully and a sense of self-rage for putting up with
such behavior." These are hardly prime conditions for doing
your best work--any work.
As with kids, bully bosses have blind spots.
They don't see themselves accurately. They see themselves as
better than others--which only acts to justify their bullying
behavior--a feeling reinforced by promotion. Another big blind
spot: sensitivity to others' feelings. Often, says Levinson,
this arises in competitive settings, where "you learn to focus
on your own behavior. It breeds a kind of psychological
Stybel has developed a psychological karate chop
to "unfreeze" executives's attitudes--a customized letter of
probation. It essentially tells an executive that, due to
changes in market conditions, or some other external factor,
his weaknesses now outweigh the strengths he has long
displayed. "It spells out desired behavioral changes in a
positive way--not 'people are complaining that you are a
bully' but 'if you make these changes you'll have a reputation
as someone who is considerate.'" It gives honchos 90 days to
shape up--or else.
It's never easy to make headway with an office
bully, observers agree. The first step is to recognize when
it's happening. Repetitive verbal abuse. Micromanagement.
Exploitation. Any activity that repeatedly demeans you or is
discourteous. "Whenever you're dissed, you're dealing with a
bully," says Levinson. "Sometimes it's inadvertent. We all get
caught up in that--once. You apologize and it's over. But
bullies don't recognize their impoliteness and they don't
Tactics from the Pros
Here are tactics from seasoned organizational
o Confront the bully: "I'm sorry you feel you
have to do that, but I will not put up with that kind of
behavior. It has no place here." It can be startlingly
effective. "Bullies lack boundaries on their own behavior.
Some external controls may force them to back off" says
Levinson. "A bully can't bully if you don't let yourself be
o Conduct the confrontation in private--behind
dosed doors in the bully's of-rice, at lunch outside the
office. The bully won't back down in front of an audience.
o Specify the behavior that's unworkable: "You
can't just fire from the hip and demean me in front of my
staff or others."
o Don't play armchair psychologist. Restrict the
discussion to specific behaviors, not theories of
o Make your boss aware by showing him or her the
consequences of his behavior on others. "I've been noticing
how Jim seems so demoralized lately. I think one of the
contributing factors may be last week's meeting when you
ridiculed him for producing an inadequate sales report" Many
executives have no information on how their leadership style
impacts others, says Alexander. "Peers don't tell them they
are in competition. Why feed information that may make your
competitor more effective?"
o Awareness is not enough; help your boss figure
out what to do. Specify the behavioral change you want. "Your
boss is likely to brush off criticism with, 'That's just my
style;" observes Marquand. "Furnish your boss with an example
of desirable behavior-from his or her own repertoire of
actions. Jump in with 'But I can recall a month ago when you
were . . . lavish in your praise of that new assistant,' or
o Point out how the boss's behavior is seen by
others. "You embarrass me when you publicly humiliate me in a
meeting, but you also embarrass yourself. You're demonstrating
your weakness." Comparing self-perceptions and the perceptions
of others is often a "grabber," finds Alexander. "The fact of
difference gets people's attention."
o Try humor. If you point out to your boss that
she's acting like a caricature, that may be enough to make her
o Recruit an ally or allies. Standing up for
yourself can stop a bully by earning his/her respect. But it
could also cost your job. The higher your boss is in the
organization, says Lewis, the more you need allies. "It pays
to check out with other workers whether the behavior you are
experiencing is generalized or idiosyncratic," says Levinson.
"If it's generalized, it's easier for two or three people to
confront a boss than one alone."
o If the company you work for is large enough to
have one, talk to the human resources department.
Unfortunately, says Levinson, companies often don't learn
about bullying experiences until an exit interview. But the
larger the company you work for, the more mechanisms there are
in place to deal with bullies. Unfortunately, the corollary is
that in a smaller organization you may have little choice
except to leave.
o If you are important to the organization, you
may accomplish your goal by going to your boss's boss. But
that's always a chancy move; you'll have to live with your
boss in the morning.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The boss is the