07/14/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Handle a Bully Boss

Help, I'm under attack. All of a sudden I can do no right. How did I get into this situation? More importantly, how do I get out?

Do you face constant criticism from your boss? Do they give you "the look," snap at you, or demean you every time you interact with them? Do you walk on eggshells and feel constantly threatened? When you feel you have to continually defend yourself, it can easily lead to a spiral of unclear thinking and bad decisions.


Unfortunately, some managers equate kindness with weakness. They either don't know how to adjust their communication and management style to bring out the best in people, or they just don't feel they have to. While the might get them temporary, short-term gains using fear and intimidation tactics, the results are not sustainable, and the longer-term damage is counterproductive. But they're not the ones reading this article -- you are. Therefore we are going to focus on ways to deal with these mean-spirited managers.

Find One Thing to Give the Greatest Lift

Analyze the area(s) of your [perceived] deficiencies and determine what could be improved most quickly and easily. We have a tendency to want to attack the biggest elephant first, but that elephant is your biggest challenge for a reason and could take time to conquer. Look for the easiest/fastest targets, and move the dial up in those areas immediately. This shows progress and upward momentum while you take incremental steps toward improving the bigger problem areas. You might consider asking your boss along the way for feedback on your progress. This puts your effort on his/her radar, but you should be prepared for more criticism early on because you already know your boss is lacking in people skills.

Improve Efficiencies

Manage your time and resources more carefully. Which activities are driving the best results? Which give a false sense of accomplishment? Which are simply sucking up time that could be better used? Once identified, look for ways to eliminate, delegate, or better manage accordingly. Not only do you have to be very honest with yourself, but you have to be willing to look deeper at how your direct reports, co-workers, partners or vendors are contributing to the waste or failing to be part of the solution.

Cut Out Distractions

Change the way you handle email, meetings, conference calls or anything else that pulls you away from the important business at hand. Take away as many administrative responsibilities as you can. Assign them to someone else or automate them. Divide up the responsibilities to ensure deadlines are met and necessary tasks are accomplished. Become [more?] efficient so you can have more time to devote to improving the business.

Make Your Boss Look Good

Find a way to become your boss's advocate. I know your heart is screaming "No, never," but this could potentially be the most effective card in your deck. Does he/she have a project they are responsible for that you can excel in? Do they have a priority or a hot button or a cause that you can take to heart, make your own, and run with? What does your boss pride themselves in, and how can you support their efforts in this area.

Don't Shut Down.

As much as you may feel like crawling into a fetal position and chucking it all after a chew-out session with your boss, don't. It only makes matters worse. The most empowering and healing thing you can do for yourself is to jump into positive and thoughtful action. In a cool and logical manner, go back to the top of this list and get to work on effectively tackling the problem. You will be surprised how quickly things get better when you don't allow these setbacks to take you down.

Don't Argue Back.

You will never win an argument with a bully boss. The more you try to defend your perceived inadequacies, the bigger the hole you will dig. Instead, admit that you can do better and start working on it immediately. This will keep the attack short. Don't go into a tailspin. Don't start scurrying around looking busy but accomplishing nothing. Keep your cool.

Don't Roll the Excrement Downhill.

If your team let you down, remember that they did it under your leadership. Do you want them to feel threatened and stymied the way your boss makes you feel? Are they as capable of recovering from a scolding as you are? Maybe not. Maybe you should take the high road and trust that your team will come along with you. You can highlight the seriousness of a situation without being mean spirited.

You can make your way through interpersonal land mines and deal effectively with bully bosses. You can even convert these bullies into allies. You won't have to work with them forever, but while you do, this is another great learning and growth experience for you. Your ability to keep a cool head and handle a crisis will be a defining strength that will pay big dividends in your career, your health and your happiness. Don't get pulled down by bullies, turn the situation around. It is possible, and it is rewarding.

Cindy Tansin is author of the book Lead With Your Heart and the Rest will Follow. Her expertise is in promoting personal and professional growth, addressing issues of mind, body, spirit, and financial soundness. Follow her at