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The Bully Pulpit, Part VI: When You’re the Bully’s Boss

Recognizing a Bully

As a manager, you might not know that you have a bully reporting to you. Depending on a bully’s style, you may never observe an inappropriate interaction yourself. In these difficult times, employees often stay in jobs even if they’re unhappy, so turnover might not have increased. The bully’s departmental results may be wonderful, and you might not even hear any complaints from subordinates and colleagues — particularly if they are afraid of retaliation, feel guilty, or don’t expect your support.

Sometimes the only clue that you’ve got a bully on your staff is diminished employee engagement. The bully may unwittingly bring this to your attention by complaining about the “whiners” on staff who don’t have enough dedication or drive. (You have to look and listen carefully because this could also be the complaint of a good supervisor who happens to have a problem staff.)

Become a Bully Whisperer

It’s hard to change a bully’s behavior, even if you’re the boss. Formal positional authority is often insufficient: The bully actually has to fear the use of your authority; in fact, you may have to resort to mild scare tactics just to get the bully’s attention.

Most bullies have less than the normal amount of empathy: They really don’t know how other people feel or how to read human reactions as data. They sometimes realize they’re disliked, but can’t see why, so they tend to assume that others are out to undercut them. Further, they may believe that their subordinates or colleagues deserve to be upset because they haven’t worked hard enough or the way the bully wants them to — and therefore, the bully has a legitimate right to call them on the carpet. For a bully, it’s all about being driven to get results.

Treat your plan for behavior change like any other form of coaching. Make exceedingly clear what the consequences will be if there is no change in behavior. Simple declarations of acceptable behavior are helpful, along with descriptions of the cues and clues that are the negative reactions to the bully’s behavior. Feedback should be given immediately after bad behavior is observed (as in The Bully Pulpit, Part V: Can the Group Bring a Bully Into Line?) — in fact, working with a bully is one of the rare circumstances in which it is right to correct someone in public.

Hold Your Ground

If the bully doesn’t apply the feedback or goes underground and takes less public routes of torture, you need to be both explicit and unyielding. If the bully doesn’t understand why it’s inappropriate to speak to people in a threatening or personally demeaning way, probe to identify the results the bully wants, confirm (or deny) that those results are acceptable and appropriate, and then ask — and subsequently observe — how the bully plans to achieve those outcomes.

Sometimes bullies just don’t take in what you’re saying. In that case, arguing is useless. It’s better to say something like, “I’ll consider what you’re saying, but in the meantime, I want you to follow the plan we’ve laid out here.” Calm, unflappable neutrality must be your watchword. Don’t let the bully leave your office thinking there’s a choice, or that you won’t be checking up on things.

Because you will need to follow up — not just once or from time to time, but with consistency — knowing that bullies do not have a realistic view of their own behavior. If improved behavior is not forthcoming, you may need to give more explicit warnings, and in writing, to guard against the eventuality of subsequent offenses.

Bully Management, Steps 1-5

  1. Acknowledge what the bully wants: “I appreciate your telling me.”
  2. If the bully’s request is reasonable, ask how they intend to achieve it.
  3. If their plan is okay, ask what they’ll do if it’s not working: “What will you do if Antigone isn’t cooperative?”
  4. Consider asking the bully to have the discussion with Antigone in your presence.
  5. Write a note to file, or follow your corrective action process.

And an Example…

If you’re dealing with a Backstabbing Bully, as described in The Bully Pulpit, Part III: A Bevy of Bullies, you might say something like:

“I understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your (budget/team meetings/sales results, etc.) and that this situation is difficult for you.

“But when you level such drastic charges about Antigone, and yet you don’t want me to get involved in any way, I can come to one of two conclusions: (1) You’re venting and brainstorming about which course of action to take, in which case we need to talk about how you can work more successfully with Antigone going forward; or (2) You’re trying to damage my impression of Antigone and jeopardize her position.

“If it’s the former, please tell me how you’d like to handle the situation now that you’ve talked through your opinions of it. If it’s the latter, it’s inappropriate and unprofessional of you to make others look bad so that they’ll be afraid of you.”

Are you having difficulty figuring out if you’re dealing with a bully or wondering how you can improve a bully’s behavior? Are you noticing other forms of organizational damage? Please get in touch and let’s see if I can help you figure it out.

Onward and upward,


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