Tough Boss or Bully?

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Management coaches will tell you that supervisors often profess complete surprise when they are accused of bullying.  They may say they never intended to bully the victim. They may blame the victim for being hyper-sensitive or they may argue that they were simply trying to motivate a low performer.

Most of the time a bully’s professed reason for bullying an employee is not really relevant.  What matters is the impact of the behavior.

Did  the behavior cause harm?  Was it reasonably foreseeable that such behavior would cause harm? 

Here’s an example:

A supervisor singles out a subordinate at a staff meeting and makes  belittling comments that humiliate, embarrass and devastate the worker. It does not matter that the supervisor’s intention was to motivate the employee.   The complained of behavior could reasonably be expected to and did cause harm . This constitutes bullying and  management that is –  at best inept.

 Employers should address the root causes of bullying. When a bullying complaint is determined to be valid, depending upon the severity of the complaint,  the employer might consider ordering the manager to undergo counseling or management training.   More drastic solutions may be appropriate. Have multiple bullying complaints been filed against a manager who has failed to change his/her behavior? Does the manager refuse to accept responsibility fto change?

Failure to to address bullying behaviors in the workplace  invite, among other things, expensive turnover, higher medical costs, and  costly  litigation.



What follows are excerpts from an article in HR Magazine, June, 2009, by Teresa A. Daniel.  The author interviewed 20 experienced HR practitioners in 2008, of whom a “surprising” 80 percent said they had personally been the target of bullies. I would like to add one more thing to the analysis:  After you review the allegations and evidence of abuse, ask yourself – Would you be comfortable having your spouse or son or daughter working work for this boss?  If the answer is no, you need to act.

Characteristics of a Workplace Bully

  • Frequent misuse of power and authority.
  • Focus on personal self-interest, as opposed to the good of the organization.
  • Prone to emotional outbursts.
  • Often inconsistent and unfair in their treatment of employees.

The HR professionals said bullies use control, exploitation, intimidation, threats, humiliation and embarrassment, a failure to communicate, manipulation, engaging in a pattern of obstructive behavior over time, ostracizing and ignoring employees, and gossiping or spreading rumors about their targets. The manager who engages in these negative acts appears to be operating with intent to cause his or her target some kind of pain or personal distress.

Characteristics of a Tough Boss

  • Objective, fair and professional.
  • Self-controlled and unemotional.
  • Performance-focused–insistent upon meeting high standards and holding employees accountable for meeting those expectations.
  • Organizationally oriented–consistently operating to achieve the best interests of their company.

The HR professionals said a tough boss is interactive and uses frequent two-way communication, really listening to their employees, as well as mentoring subordinates through coaching, counseling and frequent performance feedback. When conflict occurs in workgroups led by tough bosses, such bosses work to quickly resolve problems by engaging in honest and respectful discussions. In addition, though tough bosses’ intense focus on results may create tension and stress, employees do not take the situations personally nor do they experience diminished feelings of self-worth or adverse personal or health effects. Instead, they view such managers as “tough but fair” and keenly focused on the good of the organization.

The HR professionals indicated that malice is present in workplace bullying situations:

  • “With a bully, there’s no goal orientation. There’s nothing to do with your job. There’s nothing to do with the company. … It’s simply something that has irritated the individual. It has maddened him to the point that [he] is driven to make a person’s life miserable … either with verbal threats or actual actions against” the individual.
  • “It was almost like she had to have a person to pick on and, at different times in the years that I was there, she would choose one person to direct her anger at, and she would do that for a year or so. Then she would pick on somebody else.”
  • “Attempts to make others see the target as unworthy.”
  • Bullies “throw caution to the wind as far as feelings are concerned, and their agenda is simply ‘I’m going to get you.'”

The HR professionals indicated that the actions of a tough boss suggest no malice or intent to harm, but rather a focus on the achievement of organizational results:

  • “A tough boss is tough on everybody, not just one particular person. I think you can be tough but at the same time not be a bully. You know, underneath the tough boss’s character, I think you realize that he’s just results-oriented to the point where it becomes like an obsession to him.”
  • “Fairness and intent differentiate a workplace bully from other conflicts … I didn’t mind him saying That’s bull’ because he respected me.”
  • “People understand that the boss has the ‘right intent’ even when she is being tough on them.”
  • “No intent to intimidate, threaten or embarrass.”
  • “Good intentions geared toward making the company better.”

COPYRIGHT 2009 Society for Human Resource Management

0 thoughts on “Tough Boss or Bully?”

  1. Thankyou for this truthful, acurate and enlightening article. Your article expains in detail what a worplace bully is. It is a devastating position for the target. Your article has given me information and hope.


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