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Helen Isacke

Trusted Coach Directory

Managing Director

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Why do bosses become bullies?


When you are good at your job, the natural reward is promotion, which typically involves managing people – a skill-set which is very different to being technically competent.

Newly promoted managers are expected to hit the ground running, often without any formal management training, which results in the new boss not being sure on how to act in their new role. Their perception of what makes a ‘good’ boss will be based on their own experiences and role models, good or bad, and built on creating a persona of how they ‘think’ they should behave as a manager.

Bosses who become bullies could either be mimicking their previous boss’ behaviour, or another influential figure from their past. Of course, not all bosses who have experienced being bullied in the past will become a bully themselves, but someone who feels the need to cover up their own insecurities can develop excessive and sometimes aggressive controlling behaviours.

Traditionally a manager is the person who monitors the workload of others, managing output, making sure jobs gets done and targets are reached. And when the targets aren’t achieved, and the manager gets taken to task by their line manager, the blame gets passed down the line. When a new manager doesn’t understand how to motivate, empower and engage their team, and isn’t strong enough to take personal responsibility for the actions of their team, instead of using the carrot, the stick becomes the weapon of choice. Metaphorically speaking of course!

We all have a certain level of need to take control, to take the lead, to influence, take responsibility and make decisions, whether it’s a high, medium or low need. We also have a certain level of need to have others take the lead for us. The degree to which we need to take control is underpinned by how competent we feel, to what extent we believe that ‘I am capable’, the level of anxiety that ‘I am incapable’. And ultimately, the fear of being humiliated. If a manager has low self-esteem, then the fear of being perceived as incompetent will be masked by either micro-managing and ultimately bullying behaviour. Or at the other end of the spectrum, they may simply abdicate control. This concept comes from Will Schutz who developed FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relationship Orientation) Theory, a fascinating and illuminating concept – I strongly recommend further reading.

You will have heard the phrase ‘people join an organisation but leave their boss’, so if a bullying boss isn’t confronted then the risk of losing valuable talent is high, at great cost to the team and to an organisation.

So why are so few bullies are held to account?

Handling conflict with confidence is a rare skill, and tackling a bully can be perceived as going into battle. The person challenging the bully may be unsure whether they can hold their own ground, and may feel intimidated themselves. There’s also the fear of the consequences, yet what’s the worst that can happen? I have not met many people who are comfortable with conflict, but those who can successfully challenge a bully have a solid set of values and strong sense of self, knowing that they can handle the outcome – whatever happens.

Can a ‘bully’ change his or her spots? Yes – if they are made aware of and recognise the impact of their behaviour. If they are willing to open up and explore what’s causing their actions, work on developing their self-esteem and have a strong motivation to change, then anything is possible. Working with a qualified and experienced coach can certainly help with this process.

If a bullying manager is not confronted, then this gives out the message that the behaviour is acceptable, which can inadvertently contribute to the creation of a bullying culture – no doubt contradicting the company values written on the company website… Stamping out bullying behaviour must be driven and supported by those at the top of the organisation.

If there’s a bully in your workplace, it’s time to stop accepting their behaviour, and do something about it!

Tops Tips to deal with a bullying boss

  • Firstly, recognise that you have a choice on how to respond, to do something – or nothing.
  • Consider what it is in your behaviour that may be provoking your boss to bully you.
  • Learn how to be assertive, stand up to your boss – confidently yet without being aggressive.
  • If appropriate, share with your boss how you feel and the impact of their behaviour on your productivity.
  • Keep a diary of bullying episodes.
  • Alert HR or a more senior manager to what’s happening, sharing examples of what has happened, and when.
  • Visit the Trusted Coach Directory to find a professional coach who can help you develop the skills needed to deal with your boss.

Author Profile Picture
Helen Isacke

Managing Director

Read more from Helen Isacke

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