How to Deal With Bully Bosses

Do you have a bad manager? Someone who makes your life miserable all week by criticizing your every move? Experts offer their tips on handling bully and toxic bosses.

Is your boss a tyrant of Machiavellian proportions? If it makes you feel better, you're not alone. According to a study by the Employment Law Alliance, almost half of all employees have been targeted by a bully boss.

The study also revealed the following:

  • 81 percent of bullies are managers.
  • 50 percent of bullies are women and 50 percent are men.
  • 84 percent of targets are women.
  • 82 percent of targets ultimately lost their job.
  • 95 percent of bullying is witnessed.

Do you have a boss who is off the wall—we're talking certifiably nuts? If it's any consolation, take comfort in knowing that you have more company than you can imagine. The simple truth is that bully or tyrant bosses can be found in abundance. Unfortunately, the majority can't legally be institutionalized. Many should not be bosses.

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Tyrannical behavior comes in all forms. There are bosses who are mind-controlling abusers, manic-depressive and psychotic. There are obnoxious bully bosses who rule by intimidation, insist on getting their way and fly off the handle easily. They treat subordinates like children and seldom ask for anyone's input. There are also predator bosses, a term that is explained in management consultant Harvey Hornstein's book, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey (Penguin Putnam), in which he defines two species of tyrannical bosses: "The Conqueror" and "The Manipulator."

Conqueror bosses prey on employees' weaknesses. They find great thrills in treating the workplace like a battlefield. Once they sense an employee's soft spot, they pounce on it. The unsuspecting victim doesn't stand a chance.

Manipulator bosses are the smoothest of bullies. They fear becoming less valued if their underlings get any recognition for exemplary work. Manipulator bosses are backstabbers who'll go to frightening lengths to look good to their superiors.

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So what makes lunatic bosses act the way they do? Brian Stern, president of Shaker Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in Cleveland, contends that tyrannical behavior often stems from bosses not knowing what they're doing. A false assumption is thinking that bosses actually know how to manage people. Mention the word "boss" and we immediately think that the person has some special abilities or training. There are rules and training programs for almost every conceivable job, from sanitation engineer to nuclear physicist, but no set curriculum teaches you how to be a boss. An obvious way to compensate for a lack of skills is to be tough and unyielding. You stand a better chance of being left alone and unquestioned this way.

Yet training alone won't turn a crazy boss into a sane manager. Whatever category your crazy boss fits into, the big question is whether you can work with him or her.

Tyrannical bosses come in one of two packages. "The first is the hard-nosed, tough, demanding perfectionist," says Stern. "They can be difficult to work with, but they will listen to reason because they're all about doing the best job they can. They also know that talented people make things happen. But they can drive you nuts trying to achieve goals."

The second type, however, is even more difficult to work with, says Stern. "They are unyielding control freaks and have a total disregard for the facts. They demand that things be done their way."

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