Why Bosses Bully: the Psychology of Supervisor Harassment

Why Bosses Bully: the Psychology of Supervisor Harassment

The #MeToo movement brought to light the unpleasant reality of sexual misconduct many employees endure in the workplace. But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad forms of abuse people suffer from supervisors.

From pouring tepid coffee onto an employee’s desk to barring a worker from visiting a sick relative to capriciously toying with an intern’s career dreams, bad boss horror stories abound. Like with sexual harassment, if the behavior is bad enough to cause physical or emotional distress, it can result in a legal claim.

Why is workplace bullying so rampant? Some people blame competitive workplace cultures or poor management training. Others say sociopaths and psychopaths are just better at climbing the corporate ladder.

While bullies may be an unavoidable workplace hazard, you don’t have to become a helpless victim. Recognizing the signs of a bully and the factors that contribute to their behavior can help keep you from becoming a target. Or, at least if you do, you’ll be ready to fight back.

Workplace Bully No. 1: The insecure manager

As the Peter Principle says, people often get promoted to their maximum level of incompetence. That means at least some of your supervisors probably feel out of their league, and unable to perform at the level their own bosses demand. And it’s likely, given how much companies skimp on leadership development, that he or she may not have the skills actually to manage properly.

What that means for you, as the employee, is you might become a convenient place to direct feelings of inadequacy, often through arbitrary criticism, poor or abusive communication, micromanaging, and inconsistent demands. Even worse, as you excel in your career, things will likely get worse as your insecure boss begins to feel threatened and tries to put you in your place.

Research has shown that bosses who seem like they’re an intellectual disadvantage will give harsher critiques of others to try to make themselves appear smarter. Talent is a double-edged sword for anyone laboring under an insecure boss.

In one instance, when a company CEO praised a stand-out employee’s work, his immediate supervisor’s face turned bright red with rage. Sometimes that kind of emotion results in the boss seeking to sabotage his or her employee by spreading ugly rumors or engaging in other forms of inappropriate and retaliatory conduct.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight back. While it’s rarely a good idea to openly challenge an insecure manager, you can maintain sanity by over-communicating, getting things in writing, and making sure you can provide documentation of requests.

Build relationships with other people on your team and throughout your organization. That way you’ll have a realistic idea of how your performance is viewed by colleagues and throughout the organization, which will prevent your supervisor’s nasty comments from affecting your sense of self-worth.

Workplace Bully No. 2: The conquering dictator

Although many companies now recognize the value of teamwork and collaboration, there are still too many places where the org chart is treated like the board in a game of Risk. Or worse, like a list of contestants on a reality elimination show.

Uber competitive cultures foster silos, communication rifts, and Type-A, take-no-prisoners bosses who will stop at nothing to command the most resources and attention for themselves. You are but a mere tool, a soldier in the trenches, forced to toil to get them where they want to be.

Forced ranking systems, a la GE’s former chairman Jack Welch, or “up or out” promotion policies at organizations such as law and consulting firms, can create these unpleasant cultures.

Where there are turf battles, you are bound to find cruel and inflexible bosses. If these bosses are rewarded for hard-driving tactics, in the form of raises, bonuses or promotions, the bullying is only bound to get worse.

Academia, the world of “publish or perish,” is another area where bullying arises alongside the intense competition. Alongside higher education becoming more hierarchical, the opportunities for department heads to construct their own mini-fiefdoms are also becoming more hierarchical. Because criticism from peers comes along with the job, it is easy for bullies to justify making insulting comments or other bad behaviors.

This is a problem that’s embedded into the culture, unfortunately, and not so easy to solve. It is possible there are people within the organization who feel the same way you do. Find them and make allies. A good network of supporters can help make a bad boss more tolerable.

Workplace Bully No. 3: The honest-to-God psycho

Sometimes there’s just no other rational explanation for nasty, abusive behavior. Unfortunately, some problem personality types are attracted to positions of power, where they can manipulate and exploit others for fun.

Psychopaths, also known as people who have an anti-social personality disorder, are about four times as common in management positions and they are in the general population. (About one percent of the general population are psychopaths. About 4 percent of managers are.)

To evaluate whether a bad boss is actually a psychopath, employees can consult a set of diagnostic criteria called the B-Scan 360. Factors consistent with anti-social personality disorder include being glib and superficially charming, rationalizing, being unfocused or unreliable, impatient, demonstrating insensitivity and failing to show emotions, lacking remorse or empathy, while also acting angry, behaving dramatically, intimidating and threatening.

Another sign you might be dealing with a psychopath is extreme narcissism. Watch out for a boss who routinely embellishes his or her accomplishments, is self-aggrandizing, takes credit for other people’s work, and shifts blame when things go wrong. Be careful not to let him or her manipulate you into doing extra work. Once they succeed at shifting responsibility to you, a psychopath will do it again and again.

So, what can you do? Again, there is strength in numbers. Supportive colleagues can help minimize the impact from a terrible boss. And, of course, document everything.

While you may not get much help from HR in dealing with a psychopathic boss, you can keep track of evidence of lies, inconsistencies, and nasty, rude comments.

When all else fails, of course, you may have to find a new job. People leave managers, not companies, or so the saying goes. There’s a reason for that.

Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 888.249.6944. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)


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