You Must Think! When Dealing With Bullying Bosses

Emotional Vampires At WorkYour boss is a bully who relies on threats, yelling and name calling to manipulate employees.  This time you are the target.  What should you do?

People are always telling you to stand up to bullies, but what does that actually mean?  Fight them?  Maybe in grade school, but at work, there’s no way you can match their raw aggression, so why try?  Instead, do the unexpected, think rationally.

The adult version of standing up to a bully involves  picking a course of action and sticking to it no matter how difficult it becomes — in other words, courage.

If there is a single secret to dealing with bullies and other difficult people, whoever and wherever they are, this is it:  Every hurtful and annoying thing difficult people do follows a pattern.  Intentional or not, they do what they do because it gets them the responses they expect and the outcomes they want.  The best way to defend yourself is to recognize the patterns and step out of them.

With bullies, stepping out of the pattern means responding to an attack by thinking instead of reacting. This is difficult because the oldest part of your brain is hardwired to respond to aggression by fighting back or running away.  Either response is guaranteed to escalate the situation.  You can override your emotional response by engaging the newer parts of your brain.  Here’s how:

Ask for TimeIn emotional situations, before you say anything else, ask for a moment to think.Decide what you want to happen.  The lower centers of your brain may be clamoring for revenge, or dying to explain that whatever you are being attacked for is not your fault.

Stop!  Take a breath.  

If you fight back or run away by attempting an explanation, the situation will escalate.  The bully will see that the attack is working and will fight harder and dirtier than you ever could.  Fighting is a bully’s idea of fun.  Spoil the fun.   Your goal should be to calm the situation down by turning the bully’s fun into work.  The easiest way to do this is to ask a simple question: What would you like me to do?

If the bullying is bad enough, you may decide later to pursue longer term goals like making a formal complaint or even filing a lawsuit.  Those things can wait.   The immediate goal is to keep the bully off balance by doing the unexpected.

Maintain Control by Asking Questions – The best way of turning a bullying boss’s fun into work is by ignoring attacks and asking for specific instructions.  The first answer to any question you might ask is likely to be another attack, so keep asking what the bully would like you to do.  Eventually, he or she will have to stop shouting and answer.

Remember that in emotional situations questions are always more powerful than statements.  Statements can be attacked.  Questions, eventually, must be answered.

Never, Ever Explain! — While you are being attacked, you may feel an almost overwhelming urge to explain what actually happened. Don’t do it!

Explanations, no matter how accurate or well crafted, will be heard by an angry person as: If you consider the situation carefully, you will see that I am right, and you are wrong. You have no reason to be angry, and anyway, someone else did it.

The urge to explain is actually a part of the primitive pattern you want to avoid. It will always make an angry person angrier. Only after the anger cools and the problem solving begins is there any chance that your boss will look at the situation differently.

There is another reason you shouldn’t explain: Once you start telling the story, the temptation is strong to alter events just slightly to make them fit better. The tiniest distortion will be seen as a much more serious crime than whatever else you may have done.

Do Not Submit to Cross Examination — If you think that the approach I’m suggesting seems like copping out because you’re not standing up for yourself, remember that discretion is the better part of valor.

The place to stand firm is in trying to avoid explaining your actions until the bully has told you what he or she wants you to do.

Instead of answering hostile questions or quibbling over whether your action was a mistake or misunderstanding, turn the conversation back toward your earnest desire to correct the problem, whatever it is.  Say: “Before I go over my reasons for doing what I did, I’d like to know what I can do to set things right. What would you like me to do?”  Even the angriest bully will find it difficult to argue.


And with that, I’ve come to the end of my stint guest blogging for Dr. Kirschner!  I hope you’ve enjoyed my contribution, and have found it useful!   If you haven’t yet done so, please take a look at my new book, Emotional Vampires At Work, from McGraw Hill.   As Dr. K says, it’s the perfect complement to his bestseller, ‘Dealing With People You Can’t Stand,’ because it picks up where his book leaves off.  And please stay in touch with me.  You can visit my website  at

Thanks to Dr. K for letting me sit in for him.   I’ve certainly enjoyed being a guest blogger here at Dr. K’s How To Click With People blog.

Be safe; be well; be at peace,




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