When you work for a bully - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Management When you work for a bully

When you work for a bully

Bully bosses come in many shapes and forms, which is why their presence and its toxicity inside the organization is so insidious.

6 min read




Do you remember the broad-shouldered guy on the playground who made a habit of chastising the skinny kid who struggled at sports? Or the popular, pretty girl, the one with the fabulous wardrobe and great hair, who had an acid personality? She offered up cutting remarks about the girls who weren’t wearing the latest fashions. Little did she know that in your case it was because your parents were barely making ends meet, or your sister suffered from cerebral palsy and needed costly therapy.

Do you ever wonder what happened to these schoolyard bullies?

They grew up to be bullies in the workplace.

When you work for a bully, the feeling is familiar, especially if you’ve someone who wasn’t at the top of the social totem pole in your youth. It’s the boss that expects the extreme and makes you feel less-than when it’s not delivered. This kind of leader revels in your success, but claims it as his or her own, with little regard for promoting your accomplishments to the larger organization. They are content to bask in admiration and allow others to attribute landing that high-profile client or meeting that impossible production deadline to their gifted skill set.

They show little authentic regard for the team that made those accomplishments possible. The five weekends that you gave up with your family to take a project to fruition aren’t even on their radar. Face it, you’re working for a self-absorbed narcissist who is desperately afraid that the truth will be revealed about the actual level of his or her capability.

Bully bosses come in many shapes and forms, which is why their presence and its toxicity inside the organization is so insidious. They are masters of their craft, stealthy in their approach. They can cause you to question if what you’re feeling is the product of your imagination or the true impact of being treated poorly by the person who is responsible for supporting your development.

There are variations of workplace bullies, but in my experience, they are grounded in three basic archetypes:

The loudmouth. This is the all-too-familiar “I know everything and am always right” kind of bully. Despite all evidence to the contrary, you cannot move them off of their position even when facts prove them wrong. This bully boss likes to surround him or herself with a bevy of accolytes that publicly parrot their point of view. Woe is the team member who voices disagreement, presents dissenting data or somehow takes the spotlight off of the boss. They are likely to be sidelined, have their capabilities called into question, humiliated in front of others, or worse.

The passive-aggressive. To satisfy this bully boss, you have to be a mind reader in order to anticipate their every need. With their desire for recognition, their need for adoration; and their necessity to be seen by others as more than they are, this boss is like a 50-gallon drum with holes in it that you cannot fill. What they lack most is a sense of true identity and authenticity, which can’t ever  be obtained externally. Psychological game playing and gaslighting are trademarks of their craft. They make you ask yourself, “Am I crazy?” And, the answer is, firmly, “No, you’re not.”

The promise-breaker.  This is one of the more painful and below-the-radar bullies, and slowly ropes you in. They prey on victims who are hungry for an opportunity to grow and develop by working to gain their trust. Soon, it seem as though they want to do more for you than they actually do. For a while, you’re tricked into believing that they are an advocate for your career and will support you for future opportunities.

Then, you begin to experience the promise-breaker asking for unreasonable favors. They request, for example, that you work for a salary that’s lower than you deserve, but promise to make it up to you soon. Their explanation for the request seems reasonable at first. You hear things like “We  have a tight budget this year, but I really want to bring you on board” or “We’re just getting our business off the ground, so everyone has to make a sacrifice, but the future returns will be worth it.”

Before you know it, you’re like one young woman I know who was working 80 hours a week, to earn $400, while waiting for the “one day” when she’d be paid fairly for her efforts. That day never arrived.

Here’s the important thing to remember about bully bosses: They aren’t just born, they’re enabled.

They’re given permission for their bad behavior by every organization that rewards their results without examining how those results were achieved. They’re enabled by every leader who turns a blind eye to their reputation in the workplace and disregards the poison that the bully boss pours into the company culture. They are empowered by every colleague and peer who knows the truth of their leadership style and does nothing to defend their victims or demand their departure. They are also enabled by the teams that they assemble.

When someone on your team is bullied by the boss, it’s everybody’s issue, not just the victim. It’s a form of abuse that’s real and devastating, one that metastasizes with time, creating a hostile and demoralizing workplace culture for everyone. If you are standing by watching, you’re part of the problem.

Silence doesn’t rid the organization of this behavior. What does is a coalition that takes action.


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.