It's a fact of work life that mean or even abusive people often end up in positions of authority over others. Because they get results, it's not uncommon for their own boss or board to look the other way.
Because such managers rule through fear, whether intentionally or not, their people are stressed, compliant and weary, and thus do an adequate job (or else!) while falling way short of delivering their best work. Any great achievements done during such a manager's reign are despite them, and not because of them. That they crush the creativity and true potential of their team is a "nuance" lost on them.
Nightmare bosses cause a reactive mess of coping behavior among their team. People will avoid (like the plague!) giving them bad/controversial but important news, suck up to them, hide below their radar, or worse, adopt similar behavior with their own teams.
Culturally, the organization becomes unwell around the nightmare boss: people don't understand why it's tolerated, and colleague interactions become hesitant and competitive. Creativity and collaboration are limited to swapping stories about the latest blow up or dress-down.
As an executive coach, I've worked with a few such fear-inducing "leaders," and have found a significant and striking lack of self-awareness. In several cases, I've found that they had absolutely no idea about the pain they were inflicting, and actually thought their team admired them. As a result, lasting change proved elusive.
Clearly, leadership is not about making the workplace a battlefield, nor is a great career ever measured by one's coping skills. Life's too short.
How to Break Up: Three Steps
1. If you work for someone like this, it's helpful to notice whether you've adapted so fully that you've become complacent or jaded. Are you rationalizing (e.g., "maybe they will change," or, "it's bad, but something new might be worse," or "at least I know what to expect.")? If you recognize you are complacent, jaded, or rationalizing, it's time to plan a change.
2. Take a hard look at the toll it's taking on you, your colleagues, and your family. What's the trade off for sticking with the devil you know?
3. Finally, consider what needs to happen for you to have the courage to say goodbye to that nightmare boss -- and given that, what do you want to do about it, by when, and what help do you need to take those actions?
To people in your shoes I always ask one final question: What would it be like for you to expend the majority of your energy doing your best work, rather than coping with a difficult boss?
If you think the future could be brighter given better conditions for you to thrive, then now is the time to map out a better future for you and those who care about you.