THE BLOG
11/14/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Is Your Leader a Louder ? 5 Ways of Dealing With an Abusive Boss

Let's face it, it's not easy being the boss. According to a study from HR provider Adecco, only 30 percent of employees aspire to have the boss' job. But simply having responsibility doesn't garner respect or a working relationship. Around 37 percent of the employees polled thought they were smarter than their boss and some estimates suggest that a staggering 80 percent of employees leave their jobs because of their bosses. So what creates such a tension between boss and employee? Too often it's the boss' leadership style.

Whereas leadership is all about enabling, engaging and building confidence, "loudership" is about belittling, controlling, and instilling fear. Without doubt, bosses who bully, intimidate and create an environment of fear will undermine the performance, creativity and commitment of their employees. In the short term, these employees will comply with the demands of their bosses. And looking ahead, they will seek out new opportunities.

However, the struggle intensifies as the likelihood of finding a new job diminishes. Both performance and morale plummet and, for knowledge workers, loudership tactics cut at the very core of their identity and self-esteem.

Combating loudership

When faced with a boss that practices loudership, employees typically see only two choices:

a) Do nothing. In the short term, accepting the behavior feeds some employees' needs to withdraw from an emotionally charged confrontation (not to mention keeping one's job in a tough economy), but in the long term, such action (or inaction) invites the boss to continue.

b) Look for another job. Whether transferring inside the company or not, this option enables the employee to look beyond the hopelessness of working for a louder. Of course, such efforts have to be carried on in secret. Nothing would embolden a louder more and motivate him to turn up the volume.

Yet both of these options fail to address the problematic behavior of each party. Accepting abuse becomes a habit that's hard to break, and exiting the firm without confronting the boss' behavior fails to hold a mirror to the boss or send a message to his superiors that such behavior is acceptable.

Ideally, an employee should deal directly with a boss who practices loudership in order to rectify such behavior. Consider the following strategies:

1. Try to understand where the boss is coming from. Sometimes it's hard to get past a venomous delivery to hear the message and decipher its origins. Is the boss reacting to others' impossible or demeaning requests? Sometimes such behavior is a disguised plea to be listened to. Show empathy, "You must be so frustrated to be given conflicting directives," and see if he calms down and answers your question. Listen carefully, and if appropriate, respond by going a step further and offering a plan for taking on additional tasks. Empathy can diffuse tempers and possibly trigger empathy toward you.

2. Have a plan for dealing with difficult behaviors. Without a plan, two extremes are likely to occur: One -- you crumble in the presence of a louder, or two -- you match the venom and escalate the conflict (in which the power differential, doesn't favor you). Neither is ideal. When you crumble and show fear, you give the louder ammunition: "I knew you were a baby...you're not tough enough to run a sales organization." Think ahead about your goal, what you are willing to accept, and what you will not... along with your counteroffer, "I'm not willing to stand here while you yell at me, but if we can have a calm conversation about your concerns over my team's performance, I will gladly accept your criticism and work with the team to find ways to get back on track." Confronting anyone can be difficult, even more so when the person is your boss. Know what you will say, perhaps practicing with a trusted friend or colleague to increase your comfort and confidence for the actual event. Also, consider having this conversation in a public space. The louder might be more willing to listen -- as opposed to escalate the conflict -- when others are watching.

3. Document behaviors carefully. Without documentation, it's your word against his and you'd likely lose... and be targeted for more abuse. Make a formal complaint to Human Resources to ensure that behaviors that may have gone unnoticed are finally revealed. What isn't seen cannot be addressed, and may suggest that others have been too scared to file a grievance.

4. Avoid complaining about the behavior to everyone except the offender. Some make the mistake of telling the boss' boss. This could backfire. The boss' boss may see your behavior as politically motivated. Moreover, others you complain to may see your complaining as whining and an unwillingness to take charge of a situation, and may actually weaken your position. If you lack the courage to speak directly to the boss, find another way to deal with the stress, by talking to and getting support from a partner or close friend who has no ties with the organization.

5. Have an escape plan. If loudership behavior has persisted for a long time, and your attempts to deal with it directly and diplomatically have been unsuccessful, it might be time to look for another boss or job. However, when asked the reason for your search in an interview, don't say "because I have an impossible boss." Rather, be prepared to discuss specific ways in which the interviewer's company and position represent a better fit for your skills, experience, career goals, etc.

Much as with leaders, there are few natural born louders. It can result from a lack of self-awareness combined with others' unwillingness or inability to confront the louder. And, it can be exacerbated by a weak economy and increasing pressures to achieve performance metrics that don't reflect the current downturn. Bosses who feel their own employment at risk may eschew empowerment and tighten the reins of control to "guarantee" performance. Overcoming the loudership trap -- fear breeding insecurity that manifests itself in behaviors that generate even greater fear and insecurity -- means first understanding and recognizing the behaviors. Only then will there be progress for the louder -- and those who are traumatized by loudership behaviors.