There are many kinds of poor managers: ones who are micromanagers, demanding, uninvolved –the list goes on. Managers who are tough may just have high standards. However, the worst to deal with are bullies; they are downright mean. They are mean for many reasons. They may have learned from their own boss to manage by intimidation. Alternatively, they may be insecure and unsure of their ability to keep control. They may feel they need to make people afraid of them to maintain control. They may be taking out their own disappointments in life on staff members who report to them.
Whatever the reasons they may yell or humiliate employees often in front of their coworkers. This makes staff members feel incompetent or angry rather than motivating them to excel. Despite their efforts, mean managers tend to have less productive work groups.
So what can you do to avoid crumbling under the pressures of a mean, unreasonable boss?
Is your boss really mean?
To start, be sure you have a mean boss, not one who is demanding and perhaps undiplomatic. Demanding bosses require you to do the job you are paid to do. Are you doing your job well? Do you have the knowledge and tools to do your job well? Are you communicating well with your manager?
Begin working on these problems by discussing them with your manager in a clear and constructive way. Discuss how you can improve your performance and better your manager’s requirements. Unless you do so your situation will not improve.
Constructively confront your mean boss
If you really do have a mean boss, it may still be worthwhile to meet and express your concerns. Remain calm and don’t lose your temper during these discussions. Avoid calling your boss mean or blaming him for problems. Instead try to discover and address his concerns that lead to his mean behavior. Do so by asking open-ended questions. Tell him your goal is to learn how you can better support him.
If well executed, this approach can lead to the boss developing respect for you and moderating his mean behavior. I once had a mean boss who called me into his office to upbraid me for a problem that occurred with one of my staff members and a chemist in another department. I didn’t argue or defend the employee. Instead I said that the situation was my responsibility and I would deal with it so it wouldn’t happen again. The meeting was much shorter than either I or my boss had anticipated. I dealt with the situation. The boss was still mean but less so to me than to my coworkers. So I did succeed in moderating his behavior somewhat. Actually this wasn’t my goal at the time. I just wanted to get out of his office as soon as I could!
These tactics can be constructive; particularly if you notice that your mean boss has favorites who he isn’t mean to. Learn what they are doing that results in their not being targets for his mean behavior. If you feel comfortable with these behaviors, adopt them yourself.
In playing poker, folding means you throw down your cards and take yourself out of the game. Doing so in your job means the mean boss wins. You may find yourself avoiding your mean boss or not offering your ideas in his presence.
If you fold, your performance probably declines and you find yourself with less job security and overlooked when it comes to raises or promotions.
Change the game
Be concerned about impressing your coworkers and your boss’s manager as well as the mean boss. You may eventually be able to engineer a transfer to another department where you can work for a more congenial manager.
Work at becoming an outstanding performer and you may outlast the mean boss or even win him over. This happened once to me. My boss wasn’t great but was all right to work for. Then he gradually became mean after a reorganization. Later I realized the cause of his increasingly mean behavior was that he was now reporting to a mean boss himself. My boss was taking out his frustrations on his staff members. He would pound his desk at meetings, shout and sometimes threaten to arbitrarily fire us if we didn’t rapidly improve our performance. The problem was solved when he became so miserable that he took early retirement.
Document and report mean behavior
Consider cooperating with coworkers to document the mean boss’s behavior and report it to the appropriate person in your human resources department. Include dates, times and specific descriptions of the mean behavior. Describe how the mean behavior is adversely affecting productivity. Doing this should be a last resort.
In extreme cases, you may wish to consult an attorney because some of the mean boss’s actions may violate laws regarding hostile work environments. If this is the case, the mean boss may be subject to legal action.
Formerly you could simply quit your job when confronted with a mean boss and get another job. However, given today’s difficult employment environment, the consequences of unemployment by running away from the problem may not be a realistic option. Instead you have to deal with the situation one way or another.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.