Beastly Boss

Supervisors from hell come in many varieties, such as Mr. Sarcastic or back-stabbing Ms. Assassin

July 06, 2005|By Blanca Torres | Blanca Torres,SUN STAFF

Having a demanding boss is one thing - having a bully boss is something else.

Some office bullies have been known to ask workers to listen in on a conference call during a holiday dinner. Others point out a worker's weaknesses during staff meetings and reprimand them in front of colleagues. With others, a simple discussion turns into a screaming match.

Bully bosses are leaders who disrespect workers and treat them like objects. Many workers believe they can survive the situation if they just work hard. But in many cases, the problem can fester because some bosses use bullying as a way to achieve results while some just like feeling dominant, experts said.

Rather than designing an escape plan, experts said employees can tame bad bosses by speaking up, seeking help and uniting with fellow victims. They say there are ways employees can "manage up" and change their boss' behavior but that means speaking up about abuse.

About one in every six workers experiences abuse in the workplace according to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, based in Bellingham, Wash. Several states including Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington are considering laws to ban workplace bullying.

A boss does not have to have a hot temper or throw things at workers, as some have alleged about John R. Bolton, the nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In many cases, abusive bosses use more subtle methods that are harder to prove in court.

There are different kinds of bully bosses, said Arthur Bell, a business professor at the University of San Francisco, consultant and author of You Can't Talk to Me that Way.

First, there's the sarcastic boss who attacks people, humiliates them and makes negative comments like "How could you be so stupid?" or "Could this presentation be any worse?"

Second, there's the assassin boss who demeans workers through gossip or criticism behind someone's back.

Third, there are bosses who prey on workers' vulnerabilities by criticizing a person's personal attributes such as his appearance, personality or background.

"A lot of bully bosses lower productivity," Bell said. "You have no motive to be creative or innovative. You feel like you are holding back the extra ideas or talents you would normally put into your work."

Amanda Pardo's job as a researcher was demanding - she said she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and was assigned twice as much work when other staffers resigned.

She asked for help when her workload got to be too much, but Pardo said her requests were ignored. She said her supervisors were confrontational and once yelled at her for taking a dinner break.

"They made me feel guilty and made it seem like it was my fault things weren't getting done," said Pardo, who lives in Washington. "My response was, I'm doing what I can, I'm doing more than I was hired to do ... and I'm being reprimanded for not doing more."

Experts said many bully bosses are high-performing and goal-oriented with a record of success, which is one reason they are in leadership positions - the people above them know he or she can get the job done.

The problem is how they accomplish goals - they often think the only way to motivate workers to do their jobs is through intimidation and force.

Experts argue that a boss who nurtures workers is more effective than a boss who is constantly negative. Corporate culture, however, often dictates that managers be "tough."

"I had one client who called himself a high-performance leader," said Judith Glaser, speaker, author and executive and organizational coach. "It gave him justification for whipping people into shape into his high standard. He was extraordinarily demanding and gave very little support, and was extremely judgmental and critical - nothing was ever good enough."

That client held mandatory teleconferences during dinnertime on Thanksgiving. One employee, who had been with the company for 25 years, almost quit and suffered a heart attack under his leadership.

"A bully boss is extremely insensitive to the reactions and feelings of the employees," Glaser said. "They don't know how to respond to people who need help. They don't know how to help people reach those high standards. ... It's like they're a psychopath. They show no remorse. It's like they don't understand human suffering."

Many bullies learned their behavior from their families, teachers or former bosses - and many are being abused by their superiors, said Gerald M. Groe, a Florida consultant and author of Was Your Boss Raised by Wolves?

Even if there is a root cause, abuse is not a role or duty of a manager.

"I really don't buy this or that happened to me when I was an infant or a 5-year-old," Groe said. "My attitude as a consultant is I don't care, it should not be an excuse. Suck it up and deal with it."

Bully bosses are notorious for making top workers walk out the door, but not every abuse victim has an option to quit.

"Unless you develop skills to deal with it, you may find it again in your new company," Bell said.

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