Toxic Mix = Bully Boss

Certain chemicals are inert and harmless standing alone but, when combined, they combust into toxic fumes, or worse. This, apparently, is what frequently happens when a boss becomes a bully.


A series of studies reported last year in the academic journal, Psychological Science, found that bosses who abuse employees tend to be the result of two factors:

  1. Being in a position of power over others
  2. Feelings of incompetence and self-doubts of their ability

It takes both of these to produce a true bully in the manager’s chair. This goes deep, psychologically. The abusive boss’s ego may be threatened, not necessarily from more competent employees but often from deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.

I’m hearing more references to bullying in management than I used to. I don’t think it has necessarily grown but we seem to be more sensitive to its presence. One study indicated that in the U.S. 37 per cent of employees claim to have been been abused by their boss. This includes being yelled at, dressed down in the presence of peers or given the silent treatment. I had a client organization where a manager hadn’t had a face-to-face conversation with a particular employee for over two months…and their offices were right next to one another!

What can you do if you report to a tyrant? The same studies found that one proven strategy, at least for the short run, is to flatter your boss and affirm his (or her) strengths. They found, however, that there was a downside to this approach–it can reinforce the boss’s delusion of competence and distance him further from the painful truth.

Besides, that strategy feels phony. Your flattery will probably be false. Here two suggestions if you are faced with a toxic manager. First of all, be extremely careful! You may well be dealing with pathological behavior on his part. Secondly, if you can’t engage him in an adult-to-adult conversation about how you are experiencing him and the impact it is having on you, accept that you are not in a position to get him to change. It’s beyond your influence. Go over his head to his boss or to a neutral party, such as your HR department.

You will be doing your organization–and your boss–a huge favor.

© 2010 – 2016, Ian Cook. All rights reserved.

Ian Cook About Ian Cook

Ian Cook, presenter and consultant, works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: For more articles and book reviews of interest to managers please go to: