Emotional Bullying and the Bully Boss at Work: How to Handle The Situation

This is a public service announcement post for those of you that are suffering from the abuses of a bad boss at work.

Workplace Abuse Data

Born from a personal hatred for people who abuse their power, I went on to discover that the statistics paint a pretty horrible picture as well at the work place:

  • The Phenomena of “work place bullying and mobbing” is little known, which is surprising, since it affects 70% of working Americans at some time in their career.
  • According to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, an abusive boss is more likely to be a woman than a man. Woman to woman bullying represents 50 percent of all workplace bullying; man to woman is 30 percent, man to man 12 percent and woman to man bullying is extremely rare — only 8 percent.
  • In 2008, Dr. Judy Fisher-Blando wrote a doctoral research dissertation on Aggressive Behavior: Workplace Bullying and Its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity. The scientific study determined that almost 75% of employees surveyed had been affected by workplace bullying, whether as a target or a witness. Source
  • A European study from 2009 showed that the risk for bullying increased with a woman as boss. For women the risk of getting abused increased with 100 percent with a female boss. For men the risk increased with 80 percent. The study was made by the organisation Eurofond and included 21 000 participants. Source

How Bullies Come To Be

When you study this trend from a macro view, workplace bullies are not so different than bullies at school or at at home. They are born from the fundamental characteristics and behavior patterns:

  1. Bullies learn to indulge their tempers when dealing with people who have less power while they control and fake politeness in interactions with more powerful people.
  2. Bullies like to humiliate, embarrass and ridicule their victims. It brings them a sense of joy to do this.
  3. Bullies nurture their own damaged ego by taking it out at others.  They defend against their own insecurities by picking on those they see as vulnerable.
  4. Bullies usually were bullied before and have a long history of emotional abuse and immaturity. They are therefore fundamentally insecure.
  5. Bullies are repeat attackers.  They pick their victims (sometimes unconsciously) and return to them over and over again.
  6. Bullies are arrogant in their belief that they are justified in their behavior because they can do it.
  7. Bullies take little responsibility for their own behavior.

Professor Elash writes a great article on the sources of bullying, and the things you can do to remedy the situation in his leadership development article. I want to tell you now my personal story, my thought patterns during that period in my life, and in the end, provide you with a few action steps to get out of your situation.

My First Job – Management Consulting Year 1

As you may recall my first management consulting job was with a firm that had 10 senior partners. Most of them were great leaders back in the day (CEOs, CFOs, COOs) and were well versed in understanding themselves, and the smart but naive young graduate they hired out of the ivy league schools. I was particularly green because at the time I was only 20, and I remember one of the partners walking me into an after hours bar for a celebration because I wasn’t legally 21 yet and couldn’t enter!

I learned so much at this firm from these senior partners. There was one that was particularly mean, and he could always criticize the work of the associates. My co-workers at the time were all new to the city, and we went out together to lick our verbal wounds. I remember A., a University of Michigan alum who quit after 1 year and said he couldn’t take the abuse anymore. My roommate from Wharton soon found a job at Mercer after about 1.5 years. I myself quit after 1 year, but moreso because I couldn’t take the hours in management consulting and to be close to home in California.

Management consultants are a smart, smart bunch. I say this not out of pride but because its the truth. The whole industry makes money from consulting management on their own business. You had better be darn smart to charge money for that. But verbal abuse has nothing to do with logic, its emotional.

Luckily for us associates, the rest of the partners were all old, nurturing souls. They were all mentors, even to this day. I still keep in touch with one of my mentors at this firm, and he has always been a father figure to me professionally. What I learned from that as a young kid was to not take certain people too seriously and know that they are mean to everyone. That one partner was just like that. As a matter of fact, I think he couldn’t help himself. There were times when I saw G. in the lunch room and we’d talk, and I can tell he’s trying to be a nice guy. It is just that its not in his nature. And he always apologizes. As a kid I used to be so embarrassed but now that I’ve grown older, I realized that I actually learned a lot from this partner. And he never criticized me in front of my clients.

Conclusion: I still think he’s an asshole, but I have a love/hate relationship with him. I respect him for his talent and drive, but I disliked him for the way he treated people. He’s a lot like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. And I’m Anne Hathaway? :)

Interestingly Streep was only portraying the real life character Anna Wintour, who is one of those powerful people in history that no one likes but no one is brave enough to admit is like hell to work for. Just because you’re successful, it doesn’t give you the right to abuse others. (Personal Opinion) I personally hated the character in the movie and would never work for someone like that.

My Startups – Years 2-3

I joined 2 startups over the next 3 years in SiliconValley. I have to say, it was fun. The first startup, the partners were 27, 28 and 28. I loved them. We did some amazing things. Unfortunately things didn’t always work out financially and we were acquired. The acquiring company wasn’t so nice.

My second startup was with another CEO. 1 guy. P. He’s still my mentor. Amazing guy, I had a lot of respect for him. He taught things that I didn’t know as a young kid. While we working together, he would be tough on me, but he never criticized for the sake of nagging or demoralizing. He always give constructive feedback and pushed me to do better. He was a guy that motivated his employees.

I think it is no coincidence that P. manage to sell his company for millions and retire thereafter. The acquiring company again wasn’t so nice. The new CEO was a good guy, but he didn’t understand our business. Being acquired is sort like having someone else come into your house, and then decorating it based on their tastes. It is a strange feeling.

Overall, none of my bosses at the startups were mean! They are nice, driven people with quirks. That’s the beauty about startups. People get paid and rewarded based on performance. No Bullshit. Unfortunately its also a sailing ship, and when supplies run out (i.e. no more money) everyone starves. In that way its like an adventure, both fun and dangerous altogether. For me at the time, it was a great experience and resume builder. I would not venture into another startup with equity in the firm.

A startup is like going to an island with a ship. You have limited supplies, and must make the island your new kingdom. If you win, you rule over your land as king, or sell the island to the highest bigger and retire. If you lose, you die on your island or go back to the mainland to work for the man

The Big Rainbow Logo Company – +3.5 Years!

When my 2nd startup was acquired and half our staff was let go, I began interviewing with great ease. I had accomplished so much at such a young age, who wouldn’t want me? Ego or not, my overall demeanor and positive attitude won me over 6-7 full-time job offers in 2007.

Ironically, my last interview was at this big tech company that was considered one of the most innovative companies in the world, ever. I actually almost let their offer go, because there were others calling me back to consulting with much higher salaries. But I decided to take a chance, and see what all the buzz was about.

As a young man at 24 at the time, I thought that, given that my dad’s a diplomat, my diplomacy skills will come in handy in a bigger organization. Plus I was joining a smaller group within that large company and hopefully as my hiring manager said to me at the time, we’d work like a startup.

Boy was I wrong. People often praise tech companies for being more “lean” and “innovative” because of their speed compared to other industries. To be fair, the company was more entrepreneurial than most. It tried to hold to previous startup qualities like founder’s awards based on accomplishments and a lack of power structures that could be abused. These cultural pieces were still there, holding the fragments together. This in large part is due to our founders and the company’s CEO, whom I have met and give great respect to, not because of their net worth, but because of how they treat others around them.

Unfortunately for me, I ended up with what I later found out to be an insecure, alpha-female manager. The fact that I worked many weekends for her didn’t matter, what mattered was only her perception of me, which became increasingly difficult to change.

One thing about me that made me likable with the founders of my previous startups was my ability to start shit and speak up with ideas. Unfortunately this is not always met with praise in bigger organizations. Structures are in play. People play out actions based on promotions and future “career paths” rather than actual results. This is a problem with bigger organizations.

Shut Up and Be Quiet It Works

It wasn’t until 1 year later, when I had my wisdom teeth pulled out and was on vicodin for 2 weeks that Irealized: “Hey! If I just shut the fuck up and do LESS work, I actually get better performance reviews from this manager!”

This manager later left, and she hired the next manager, who was a lot like her. They both came from high profile MBAs, and both were alpha female with insecurities. This did not bode well for me. The 2nd manager did not treat me well at all, having been told of horrible things I’m sure by the first. I soon had to change groups within the company to stop the abuse that was taking place.

Now, as an outsider you might that’s impossible. How can a company as colorful and wonderful as this have such bad managers? Well my friend, all I can say is, public perception is sometimes different than reality. Just because Britney Spears looks amazing on her CD covers, it doesn’t mean she’s smart or good in bed.

One tip I leave about tyrannical bosses is that they tend to pick on those that are loud, or they perceive to challenge their authority or power. Because such insecurities, if you actually do the work you were assigned and became more quiet in business meetings, your boss’s perception of you might actually get better. In this case, the dinosaur will eat the loudest prey so staying out of the limelight is a useful strategy.


People say “it’s not personal, it’s business” and there are definitely times when this is true. However, you have understand that “professionalism” can be used both ways. It is basically a veil that is covered and used in business to AVOID personal bullshit. We are all people with human emotions, and professionalism basically removes this.

Now, sometimes that’s a great thing to ensure fair treatment of customers and such. Other times, it is used as a weapon. “I’m sorry, you’re be demoted. As a professional I can’t talk about this in further detail”, or they give you a random line. This in infuriating because they stop treating you like a human being. Of course its personal. You’re taking that person’s life and their salary away. But again, big companies get away with this and they use “professionalism” as shield all the time to deny real human feelings.

Job rejection letters often employ this tool for good reason. But when you’re actually at a job and getting demoted or “constructive feedback” it sure feels damn personal. Especially when your manager is abusing her power. Only a fool would think that such a framework for “for their own good” and “normal”.

Remember that managers are agents for The Man. That’s the role’s MO and there is always some level of a conflict of interest between The Man and its peons. As such, remember that professionalism is mantra in big organizations as “good” spirits. But, it can also be used to dehumanize and carry out the The Man’s MO. It is the nature of the beast.

Company Culture

Now look. In a high performing company like Google, certain standards have to met. That means to be a tyrant boss, you at least had to be good at it. This often meant being subtle and avoiding possible HR ramifications that come into play. So it becomes a passive aggressive strategy. This reduces the impact at certain times but causes extreme pain and distress over a long period of time. I remember going to sleep and not being able to sleep because of what I feared would happen the next work day. To give an idea of what these alpha female managers would do so you can recognize the patterns of passive aggressive bullying at work:

  • Having killed my sales goals by +30% over 2 quarters, she gave me a “meets expectations” review. Other sales associates who had less increases got “exceeds expectations” or higher. This was my first hint that there was something about her personal perception of me that was hurting these scores.
  • In the transfer meeting to my new group manager (who was a guy and was awesome) badmouthed me in front of him and blamed me for an PR error related to another VP of the company that I initially introduced her to and she messed up. I remember shaking my head and trying to control my anger in that meeting.
  • Upon knowing that I’m transferring groups (it is recommended and required for “transparency” reasons), made me do order processing work and set a quota that was previously fulfilled by 4 people. My co-workers felt bad for me and helped out, but even they couldn’t do anything against someone who had more power. I went to HR to talk about it, they they said there’s nothing they can do.
  • Tries to squeeze a lot of work out of you, and appears to give you credit among your peers with apparent praises. Tells you she mentioned your name in the senior management meetings. However, she is very good at allocating these group’s credits to herself with senior management. In the words of one of my co-workers and co-sufferers, “Man, R. The way its going right now. It just makes not not want to work for her anymore. But what can I do? What can I do? I need this job…”
  • Treats my coworkers and me with an authoritative and very cold tone, and smiles only when she’s talking to her boss and becomes a totally different person

The whole team thought about going to a higher source, but again, this depends on company culture. And VERY rarely will a manager get fired. Managers are promoted and hard to find, AND they possess more power than you. The power structure doesn’t favor such a strategy. Believe me, the option was seriously discussed among the people that worked for her. Getting into Google is tough, and so is getting fired. You’d have to try real hard. As such, everyone is given many chances to “improve performance”. You know that when the alpha female manager hears about this, her “improve performance” quarter will translate into a “quarter in hell” for you and your buddies for going above her to complain.

Eventually, half the team transfered, and the rest swallowed their pride and dignity and learned to sit tight until the time was right.

Being Thankful and Seeing Your Identity as You, Not the Job Title

Here I am, this big shot “attractive guy” who goes out on Thursday night and gets 2 girls making out with him and then, come Friday morning, gets reamed from the behind in a team meeting by his boss.

Now, in my mind, I was superstar. A superstar that performs and makes mad money at my startups, not some douche who performs order form processing.

In all seriousness, I am very good at what I do. I’m not saying this to boast but rather as a matter of circumstance. I graduated at the top my class at 20. I was already a project manager at a top consulting firm by the time I turned 21. It wasn’t like my work wasn’t great… it was the perception that my manager of my work that was incongruent. In other words, for long time I was having an identity crisis.

I am actually very thankful for this experience, believe it or not. Many others have it worse, and this is common white-collar type of situation. I have heard worse stories from my blue-collar working friends.

I am also very thankful for the cultural processes that our founders setup where I find solace. Our improv and comedy groups, our dance groups, the engineers (who fight less, I hear), the tech talks. All of these really made appreciate the difference the founding members of a big company can still make.

On the other side of the coin, all this made the contrast mess with my head a bit. The whole world is screaming that you have the best job in the world. But your little world where you report to your manager and she defines how much you get paid, is telling you that life is hell. At my young age this is the lesson I needed to learn.

Live and find happiness for yourself, and not what others deem to be. Tune out the voice of the masses for the masses are often very, very wrong. Learn to think for yourself instead of being led by social conditioning.

You also have to remember that your identity revolves around more than your job title. That’s your role, but it never defines who you are. Having this perspective may allow you, in the short term, to work a job that you feel like is not utilizing all of your skill-sets. While you’re doing this, always remember the big picture and plan out your next move.

Long Run and Dreams

In the long run, however, I was already making plans…my bedroom became a wall full of posters of my dreams and side business plans. I was going to get out of this, once and for all. Everyday that I felt bullied at work made me work harder at making my businesses work.

I remember a story mom told me:

when I was pregnant with you in still in my womb, dad’s ambassador boss made me work a night shift at the company Christmas party.

When she told me this story I promised myself as a kid that I would never go into the corrupt government organization that my father joined. He took pride in his work as a diplomat and I’m proud of him. I’m proud to be his son. But I told him the night he left me at my dorm, at 16, to start my freshman year:

“dad, I will become the best businessman in the world. A good businessman is always in need because the economy is based on the logic of supply and demand!”

Dad just laughed and wished me luck as he drove to the airport and I began my education.

It wasn’t until years later that I understood dad. Human emotions and the positive and negative aspects of humanity do not change. As long as I worked for someone else, the power structure enables people to have control over me. That is fine with a level headed, fair manager, but I’m leaving it up to the fates to decide who has that power. And when the person who is manager, who has power over you is emotionally insecure, they can and often will make your life miserable.

For me, there was no way to have the life that want, my dreams come true, if I had to answer to someone else unwillingly. I am great at following great leaders like the ex CEOs of my startups. But these I did because I chose to, it wasn’t forced upon me.

I refuse to follow another power hungry manager who plays favorites and political games to get ahead on her corporate ladder game at the expense of me. I have nothing against female managers per se, and bad male managers can be just as bad.

Bully Stereotype

On the exact same note, no one should put up with bullies. We often think about bullies as men or big bulky guys, who girls can be bullies too. Even club girls. I wrote a thread about “bully bitches” and how some girls will reject guys in a very harsh way because they get satisfaction from it. I don’t think guys should put up with that either. They say unnecessarily harsh things to a man that approaches them when it is very obvious and he’s trying to be more social. I don’t get mad at these anymore and I rarely receive these nowadays, but I get mad for my students if a girl is abusing her own powers. Saying something really mean and then laughing at the guy who approached her with her friends.

So he paid you a compliment and approached you, and you’re returning this favor with a condescending reply? How un-classy. I called a girl out one night for having no class and she went crazy on a rage, proving to the whole bar that indeed she is. My friends and I just laughed at her emotional outburst.

Think about it for a second. If a small, timid high school girl came up to a guy and give him a flower, would he throw the flower on the, stomp on it, and tell her to get lost? Would any classy, intuitive girl deliberately make a somewhat socially uncalibrated man feel bad for approaching her?

The idea I am trying to impart with you is that when someone has power, whether that is sexual or political, it should be used in way that doesn’t maliciously hurt others or in a very selfish way. However, the only way as an individual to fight someone who abuses power is to gain more power. And to do this, you first need to understand the underlying dynamics of what makes something or someone possess power. I crave power to the extent that I wish to gain the power to protect myself from the harmful doings of others.

Here are some tools in my arsenal now that I will share with you to gain power in the situation of a bully boss:

    1. Understand the person. This may be the last thing you want to do, but sometimes problems can arise because of you, or a lack of understanding between people. Have a talk with your manager about how a specific action is making you feel (as opposed to criticizing right away and he or she is mean). Say, “when this happens, I feel like” instead of “you’re always mean to me”.  A lot of unnecessary drama is born of lack of understanding and this solves many cases.
    2. In the event that you DO have understanding of your manager and yet disagree, the situation becomes complicated. In this case you have a MO (Modus Operandi) that is different than hers and you’re in conflict. But, she has more power than you. This is a very tough situation. Even myself, I must say, looking back, kept on saying in my head nice things about her. It is sort of like someone being in love and ONLY seeing the positive things about a person. While this has positive psychological effects, in the workplace it has a tendency to over exert to the point of distortion. A man must have an very strong will to go against his interest and against those that pay his salary.
    3. One way around this is to save up money. Americans have the lowest saving rates of ANY country. This gives a person very little leverage when it comes quitting a job because there’s nothing to burn. I started saving very soon after the 2nd female manager. It was my fuel and motivation to unlock the chains to my prison. I still considered the day I quit as my prison break.
    4. Networking helps, but this again depends on company culture about internal transfers, the process, and how its done. You want to leverage a strong network to transfer between departments. This allows you to avoid bad bosses and have more flexibility.
    5. Be prepared to battle. This is one the biggest sins for me and also many of my friends who still share their battle tales with me. Being prepared battle means being at peace with the consequences of standing your ground. It doesn’t have to be hostile. As a matter of fact, keeping your cool is the best option. “You can’t talk to me like that” is very firm but non threatening statement in response to a derogatory or insulting comment by your boss or co-worker. Just being ok with the finale gives you power in your stance and your position.

    1. Camouflage. This last technique I have personally used and it works well if you fit a certain personality profile. I noticed a pattern with meek, decent looking girls who get “passes” on their reviews. Part of it because of their cuteness and looks. Another part is really just because people’s behaviors are based on expectations. If someone perhaps “ok” for a few quarters and relatively quiet and non-controversial, people begin to expect that type of work from him or her. I know many engineers and quiet analysts who just gets by like this and receive very reasonable performance reviews. I even began to act more stupid than I actually was in meetings. “What do you think R?” I would give a thumbs up and nod. The wounds I have licked from making otherwise profitable suggestions would only be rewarded by the alpha female manager as more work, more insulting criticism, and more praise for her with higher management.
    2. Honestly, we’ve all thought about battling our bosses. We are tribal creatures, and back in day these types of conflicts are settled through physical fights. You would think that it was cruel but I think what’s really more cruel than a bloody fist fight is the towing of the emotional drain a tyrannical boss can have on your mental well being and your soul. This type of pain is inflicted as subtle as possible over a long period of time. It wears you down like parasite and is often worse than most non-permanent diseases. I never really got over this, I remember one trip to my previous CEO and mentor P and he said something that I will never forget that beautiful day in his Sausalito house: “R, people who are like that, which you described. Their own actions will be their downfall. Let them take care of themselves and bury themselves. You need not concern yourself with these types of individuals. Focus on your goal, your big pictures.”
    3. Most of my co-workers were quite nice, but one of them did have a tantrum and sometimes your competition is not your boss but those that work around you. This is easier to defend because they probably have a similar power level to you (unless they have been there for a long time). I consider these worthwhile challenges. Being better performing and happier than they are, and having a strong network should nullify a lot of issues. If he or she overreacts, the bosses will step in. Unbalanced power dynamics is what makes it more difficult, as with a difficult boss.
    4. Write a diary or a blog. Seriously. Letting your feelings out helps. Make sure you don’t do this unless you have a pretty solid backup plan:

I hope this post was helpful to you if you are indeed suffering from workplace abuse. Ironically, the week before I quit I received an interview with a hiring manager at a competing social networking firm. My call with him did not go well as he grilled me on tough questions and boasted about his own accomplishments and the people he knew in my firm.
The questions were fine and I am good interviewer, but it was his tonality and cold, businesslike demeanor that really ticked me off. This was a company that’s supposed to be young, hip and booming with youth, and yet he ran the meeting like a veteran 40 year old who’s spent way too much time in the executive office and has an ax to grind with something or someone.
I sensed another alpha and insecure corporate ladder climber and was actually kind of happy when the recruiter told me that I wasn’t qualified based on my interview with the hiring manager. I just laughed and thought, “yeah, I’m definitely not qualified to be abused like that again.”
Post Corporate Life
My friends, family and roommate have all noticed how happy, stress free and more calm I have become after quitting my job. I get along just fine with my outsourcers, coders and business partners in the new startup I formed. We praise each other and have healthy debates, and work is based on generating revenue and delivering results, instead of office politics and playing favorites. Now, as I start the next chapter of my life, I realized that I am never going back to that corporate prison again.
2011 Update: I spoke to an old friend from Google. The 2nd female manager, whom the whole team hated, who “encouraged to leave” a few months ago. Apparently she had a mental breakdown and “started to play Farmville on her computer”, according to my old co-worker. P. was right. People like that are on a one-way track towards their own demise. You need not be a part of it.

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