November 18, 2011

help! my boss is a bully!

A reader asks:
Dear Wannabe|Employee,
My boss is very unpredictable and emotional, we never know which version we're going to get when a new day starts at the office. He changes his mind about what we need to do every day (or sometimes every few hours), leaving us a little clueless and stressed because we're afraid to approach him with questions. Sometimes he is even unhappy when we give him exactly what he asked for. He throws big tantrums and always makes us feel like it's our fault. I don't expect him to be perfect, but because this happens so often it's becoming a problem for our whole team.  How do we deal with this?
Wow, I'm sure many of us have had a bad experience with a boss or manager similar to this. There is no easy answer, but here are some things to consider:

  • The 'why' of it all: Sometimes it's possible to figure out the reason behind someone's emotional behaviour. Personal problems or issues never justify treating someone badly, but understanding the reason he acts the way he does may help you shield some of the blame that's been flying your way. He may be going through a tough time personally, or someone higher up in the company is bullying him in the same way. Maybe he's just very insecure or unable to take responsibility for his own actions.
  • Who's involved?: If your boss is doing this with everyone, at least you can know that it isn't personal and you're probably doing a good job even though it's not being acknowledged. If it's obvious that your boss is picking on you alone, I would try asking something like "I notice that the way I do things tend to upset you, and I would like to know if there is anything in my approach that is causing this. If  I am offending you in some personal way I would like to ensure it doesn't happen again, because I really want to deliver on what's required of me and work well in our team". Show that both the job and the relationship are important to you. If he still yells at you after that, at least you tried.
  • Anything you can do?: Even though your boss may be very unpredictable (or just plain scary), have you thought about things you can try from your side to strengthen the relationship? Instead of becoming his sworn enemy at the office, have you tried getting to know him and understand his management style? Whether this works or not, you will be able to say with complete confidence that you tried reaching out and strengthening the relationship. Even if he is 20 years your senior, showing that you care about him as a person might just build enough trust between you to change the way he has been treating you.
  • Talk to HR: Yes you really can (and should) talk to Human Resources if this problem is serious and affecting people's ability to do their jobs in peace. This way you won't need to face it alone and they may be able to help with finding a solution that benefits all the parties involved.
  • It could be worse: I know this doesn't solve your problem, but realising that you are not the only person in the world with a horrible boss may help take the edge off a little. You may not be stuck in this particular team or company for too long, so if you need to bite down for a while longer it helps to know that it could have been worse. Check out these posts I found: 10 Signs that You Have a Bad Boss, How to Deal with a Horrible BossMy Bad Boss Contest (get ready to laugh a little for this last one!).

In the end you do need to decide if it's worth staying in your team or company when there is nothing more to do and no one that can help. If your stress levels are over the roof and you are fearing for your life every day, it may be time for a fresh start. After all, you cannot be responsible for anyone else's behaviour but your own.

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