05 Jul. 2020
Horrible Bosses Part 1 - What Makes a Bully

(Names and situations are composite profiles and unrelated to past or present clients)

Terri complained, “I don’t know what happened, I thought I was getting my dream job, but it is just a nightmare.” Through tears and long pauses, Terri exclaimed, “I can’t afford to quit, but I can’t stay like this either.” Terri was six months in at a new and exciting tech company that headhunted her for her creative design skills. Months of recruitment and interviews, including drinks and lunches with her future boss, indicated that she was about to get her dream job. 6 months later, Terri was going to work each day walking on eggshells and holding her breath each time her phone notifications went off hoping that it wasn’t a new email or text from her boss Jan. “I have never experienced this before, why is she doing this?”. After an initial honeymoon period, Jan became demanding and condescending. “I even get emails at 11 at night!  If I don’t answer right away, Jan calls me into her office and it ends up being an hour long, one sided conversation, questioning my commitment to the company!  In public, she praises me, in private it is meeting after meeting. I know I am doing a good job, in fact, in the last all staff meeting, the CEO - Jan’s boss - congratulated the creative department and said that since hiring me they have gotten new contracts because the clients loved my previous work. That made Jan even angrier.  I just can’t win!”. 

Sad Woman

Terri noted that when she went to HR, she was given the direction to use assertive communication skills and blamed the problem on personality. They explained that it was because Jan was a “Green/Gold” and had a direct "style" (in reference to a team-building personality quiz the staff took last year) and that Terri was a “Blue” so is more sensitive to direct communication. HR gave Terri the number for her Employee Assistance Program and directed her to get counselling. After this meeting, Jan made a counter-complaint that Terri was targeting HER for being a female in a position of power and had issues with authority.

Terri sat in my office crying, “I know that isn’t the problem, but they won’t do anything!”. Terri loved the work she did, had supportive co-workers but was very quickly burning out and exhibiting signs of Acute Stress Disorder. She was stuck between making a living or getting very sick.

Terri had a horrible boss.

What happens when power goes corrupt? I see more and more Terri’s in my office who are feeling powerless against the Jan’s. The result is low staff morale, reduced productivity, and employee absenteeism or turnover.

 Is Jan inherently a person of low morals and no scruples? Though there are sociopaths and narcissists in the workplace, there is also a phenomenon social psychologists call “Bathsheba Syndrome”. Named for the biblical reference to King David who saw Bathsheba bathing and just had to have her, so in his power, he killed her husband and took her as a wife against her will - a good man intoxicated with power and no accountability (yes, those social psychologists were victim-blaming!). Bathsheba syndrome asserts that it is not low morals or ethics that compromise a leader, it is the byproduct of success.

There are four ingredients that make a bully: an inflated sense of ability, privileged access,  loss of strategic direction and focused control of resources. These four features create the perfect storm.  

According to Ludwig & Longenecker (1993), the individuals who are more susceptible to becoming workplace bullies are upper managers who have strong principles, careers built on service vs self-gratification and are of high intelligence. These are people who, at the height of their success, are not personally equipped to balance the privilege of power with the ethics of business.  Combined that with an ineffective organizational structure, a bully is made. 

The bully has a growing manifestation of their inflated sense of the personal ability to manipulate outcomes.  They also become increasingly isolated from friends and family due to a preoccupation with work, develop increased separation between their own perceived role and those of other staff, and an almost insatiable desire for bigger and better outcomes and/or emotions. The bottom line, they lose touch with reality- in a literal sense. 

If we look at Terri’s boss Jan, we can assume that these personal factors exist. Fear of losing control and power exacerbates symptoms and creates further emptiness. Rather than humility, this combination creates an inflated sense of ego. The resulting behavior is loss of trust in employees, a closed mind,  egregious displays of negative emotions, disrespect, and a loss of ethical behavior. When an organization has an arms-length board of directors or segregated departments, the bully (if a person in charge) essentially has organizational autonomy or control and a lack of personal accountability.

How can you avoid becoming a horrible boss? 
  • Know that BECAUSE you are principled and ethical, you are not immune to becoming a horrible boss. 
  • Keep a sense of personal balance AND regularly solicit performance.As a leader- KNOW that your job is to provide strategic direction and guidance on all levels. 
  • Surround yourself with ethical leaders- a good rule of thumb, ethical leaders do not spend their time complaining about employees or blaming others. Keep people around you who will keep you in check and also provide comfort when necessary. 
How can you avoid creating a horrible boss? 
  • As an organization, have a process in place that keeps a boss accountable. Make sure they are where they are supposed to be and doing what they are supposed to do- and do not take their word for it. Create a system for employees to voice their concerns, do regular audits of decision-making processes, and when you see a pattern of employee turnover- take notice!
  • If you are operating as an arms-length board,  meet more than once a quarter and get to know employees. Obtain your information from a variety of sources. 
  • Breaches of business ethics are primarily for personal gains, and not always financial. Don’t look for financial losses, look for broken relationships and employee stress. 
  • Remember it is impossible for the horrible boss to not implicate others in their decisions and ultimately take down the organization. 
  • Not getting caught or held accountable only creates a further sense of being untouchable and inherently validates the bad behavior. 
  • Board involvement needs to keep in mind the psychological and physical health of the person in charge. 

Terri spent months in therapy which included an after-hours behavior activation plan of diligent and non-negotiable self-care, sleep hygiene schedule, targeted reframing of thought distortions caused by an inner critic, and created a circle of care that included healthy family and friends outside of work. Ultimately, after months of being targeted by Jan, and with limited organizational support, Terri found a lower-paying job outside of her industry in order to prevent further psychological and physical damage. She made sure to research the organizational structure, look for reviews online, and paid careful attention to how the employees interacted with each other when she visited the office. Terri was able to end counselling after EMDR therapy, creating a non-negotiable self-care routine, and experiencing positive interaction in the new workplace. I referred her to a career coach when she was ready to go back to the tech industry. 

In Horrible Bosses Part II we look at what you can do if you are the target of a workplace bully. 

Workplace bullying and burnout is common and creates symptoms that impact both our mental and physical health. If you are on the wrong end of a horrible boss or you are experiencing the challenges of leadership, psychology may help. Get in touch with me at www.steelecounselling.com


The Bathsheba Syndrome: The ethical failure of successful leaders Ludwig, Dean C; Longenecker, Clinton O Journal of Business Ethics; Apr 1993; 12, 4; Research Library


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