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Are You Being Bullied by Your Boss?

The following is an exchange about bullying between you and someone you know at work.

Them: I recently moved to a new department where I started working for a new boss. I think I am being bullied by her. How can I tell if I am right and, if I am, what can I do about it?

You: Well, let's start by examining what bullying is. Bullying is any form of misuse of power. It's what happens when someone takes away your right to choose your own actions, words, or feelings. Bullying happens when you allow two things to happen. First, you give someone power over you. Second, you allow them to use their power to diminish you in a way that you find unacceptable. Does this fit in with what is happening to you?

Them: Yes. I do feel threatened by my boss. She is physically intimidating and likes to make her points by invading my personal space, often coming very close to me in a threatening way. She can be very aggressive and has thrown things when angry. She insists that I meet her deadlines and, even when I work late and produce what she wants, she'll find fault. She's often sarcastic about my work, especially in front of others.

You: And how does this make you feel?

Them: Weak, belittled, humiliated. My confidence is at rock bottom and I just feel I can't do anything right. I'm now starting to agree with her about my work which was always very good before I moved to her department.

You: Everything you say suggests that you are right to believe your boss is bullying you. The important thing for you, your work, and your personal integrity is your response.

The first thing to realize is that, when you are being bullied, you and your bully don't see things the same way. You see the boss-subordinate relationship as a win-win one. Your boss almost certainly sees it as a win-lose one. All bullies are insecure. Because their world view is win-lose, they actually think you are out to beat them. Their response is to put you down and take power from you. So, start by understanding that there is nothing wrong with you, your attitude, or your work.

Them: I try to do that and I've told her as much but it doesn't make any difference.

You: Of course not. Remember that she is the one who feels threatened by you because of the way she sees you. Whenever you defend yourself, it only makes things worse because she sees your defence as an attack on her.

Them: OK. So what can I do?

You: In one sentence, stop allowing her to have power over you. For this, you need to know that people only have power if you let them. The boss is only powerful if you believe they are or if they threaten you with things that you think are important but don't control, such as your pay, your bonus, your working hours, the quality of your work, and the actual job itself. As long as you rate these as important but don't feel in control of them, you make yourself vulnerable to bullying bosses. Instead, believe in yourself, know your own value, and work on eliminating your fears. You can do this by learning to be more assertive.
Assertiveness training will teach you the right confidence mindset. It will give you many tricks and techniques to use when someone tries to put you down. It will help you handle what were once frightening situations in a calm, non-confrontational manner so that, whatever the other person does, you will emerge feeling good about yourself.

Them: Yes, I think you're right. But wouldn't it be best to simply report them to HR or their boss?

You: It's best to avoid this unless your boss breaks a clear company rule, for example, becomes physically abusive. Aim first to learn how to handle your own thoughts, feelings and reactions. Not only will you emerge successfully from this situation but you will have gained important life skills that you can apply again and again to any other relationship.

Next time, I can talk you through some specific responses that you can use when you're threatened by a bullying boss.