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Dealing with Abusive Bosses!

Author : Dilip Saraf
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Last week I blogged about dealing with an all-consuming boss, who is never satisfied with the results you produce, despite your impressive outcomes and superhuman efforts. This week I am writing about a manager of a different ilk: An abusive boss.

What is an abusive boss? Typically, an abusive boss takes great delight in your gratuitous humiliation, especially in public. One recent example is an executive, who has been my client for many years, so I know his capabilities and achievements. As a product manager he is a star in his own right working at an enterprise-products company with several billion dollars in revenues.

At one of the companys recent launch events my client, his entire workgroup, his immediate manager, and his bossan EVPwere celebrating one evening the success of their product, for which my client was responsible and in getting a large order from a new customer during that evening. An account manager responsible for that prized sale was in that group enjoying the proceedings and taking kudos, along with my client, from everyone around him.

Although my client had spearheaded that product as the product manager, which the account manager had culminated into a great sale, the EVP turns to my client and loudly blurts out: look, Jim you could NEVER do what Harry just accomplished. You could NEVER get into a customers head and close a sale this big, this fast! As the EVP thundered this pronouncement in middle of what was a merry celebration that evening, everyone immediately got silent in that raucous crowd of some 25-30 people, with celebratory drinks in their hands. My client, crestfallen, slinked back to the edge of the crowd and disengaged himself from the remainder of the festivities, despite leading the development of this great product that had just been a winner with this account manager.

Shocking as this episode was this was not an isolated event. Not long before that this very client was making a presentation to a crowd of customers, partners, and his peers. My client was presenting the product roadmap he owned to this audience and showing them how this roadmap was a cut above what anyone else was working on in their competitive ecosystem. Customers and partners were excited about what my client presented and everyone applauded after his 10-12 minute presentation, which the same EVP had seen before. As the applause died down this EVP blurted out, I hope, Jim, you take some coaching on how to make good presentations, in front of that entire crowd! Almost everyone in the room shook their head as they heard this inane comment from this honcho!

These two episodes had occurred just a few days apart. So, my client called me, upset and humiliated, asking for advice on how to deal with these invidious comments made in public despite all his otherwise great work. During this call it became apparent that my client was at the receiving end of this wrath, not just from this EVP, but also from his immediate boss, although less frequently. My client rationalized his complaint by telling me that both the bosses do this to everyone in their team and to others, so he did not feel singled out.


In discussion with my client I told him that making such humiliating comments in public does not absolve his bosses of their leadership obligation to save them for private discussion with the targeted individual. Despite their gratuitous nature they were inappropriate in the context of the event and totally disparaging, undermining the targeted individual publicly. For example, it is not a product managers job that has developed a dynamite product to secure an account and to close a sale. That job rightfully belongs to the account manager. Also, since the EVP had seen my clients product roadmap presentation before, why did he wait to humiliate him for that same presentation in the presence of important customers and others?

After hearing my clients plight I wonder how often this happens to others in similar situations, albeit at a more subtle level. In any case this is not right and must be corrected to disabuse this notion of providing timely feedback in a constructive way. Here are my suggestions on how to deal with abusive bosses:

1.If you feel that your boss is being abusive you must recognize it and make a mental note at the very first instance of such abuse. It really does not matter how significant this abuse was. As long as you feel that you have been publicly upbraided, regardless of its degree, you must make a note of this encounter mentally.
2.The second time such an abuse occurs you must take action. This action entails setting up a one-on-one meeting with your boss and specifically discussing what you experienced when you boss humiliated you in public. You must convey to your boss that such behavior is demoralizing and does little to make any difference without actionable and constructive feedback. Such feedback must be given in a private meeting, not in front of others.
3.If you boss responds by blowing you off and saying, Jim, you are being overly sensitive about this. I meant no harm by making such a comment. Tell your boss that you felt harmed by the comment and how it undermined you in front of others. Complete this discussion by telling your boss how you expect them to provide you feedback if they see a need for you to improve. If they do not already know this, tell them it is appropriate to praise in public, but not to upbraid anyone that way; it must only be done in private.
4.After having this discussion send your boss an email that is constructive: Thanks, Mike, for meeting with me to discuss my concerns about how you provide feedback and how I prefer to receive it in the future. You can elaborate on this if you need more context for posterity.
5.If your skip-level boss does this to you, as it happened in the case of my client, first meet with your boss and explain to them your concerns and tell them that you plan to go directly to their boss and have this discussion after you realize that this is a pattern (two consecutive episodes form a pattern) and must be addressed in a forthright way.
6.After you meet with the uber boss do not send them an email about your meeting, but send that email to your boss explaining the context. Sending an email to your uber boss may interfere with your welfare in that company.
7.If the abuse continues on either or both fronts, contact your HR representative and discuss the history, showing your emails to make your case.
8.If you do not get any relief from such abuses you must make plans to leave your place of employment to preserve your self-esteem and dignity. You must not rationalize your plight and abuse by justifying to yourself, Everyone suffers the same abuse, so I am going to live with it.
9.Do not become part of the abusive culture by embracing this in how you behave towards your own team members. Some abusers believe that since the company is steeped in this culture they are OK to pass down the abuse to their direct reports.
10.Do not internalize this abuse and take it home with you. Treat your loved ones with respect and dignity and get out of the abusive culture before you develop that mindset in how you behave at work and at home.

Abusive behavior from superiors can be corrosive to your welfare and self-confidence, so learn to deal with it forthrightly.

Good luck!

About Author
Dilip has distinguished himself as LinkedIn’s #1 career coach from among a global pool of over 1,000 peers ever since LinkedIn started ranking them professionally (LinkedIn selected 23 categories of professionals for this ranking and published this ranking from 2006 until 2012). Having worked with over 6,000 clients from all walks of professions and having worked with nearly the entire spectrum of age groups—from high-school graduates about to enter college to those in their 70s, not knowing what to do with their retirement—Dilip has developed a unique approach to bringing meaning to their professional and personal lives. Dilip’s professional success lies in his ability to codify what he has learned in his own varied life (he has changed careers four times and is currently in his fifth) and from those of his clients, and to apply the essence of that learning to each coaching situation.

After getting his B.Tech. (Honors) from IIT-Bombay and Master’s in electrical engineering(MSEE) from Stanford University, Dilip worked at various organizations, starting as an individual contributor and then progressing to head an engineering organization of a division of a high-tech company, with $2B in sales, in California’s Silicon Valley. His current interest in coaching resulted from his career experiences spanning nearly four decades, at four very diverse organizations–and industries, including a major conglomerate in India, and from what it takes to re-invent oneself time and again, especially after a lay-off and with constraints that are beyond your control.

During the 45-plus years since his graduation, Dilip has reinvented himself time and again to explore new career horizons. When he left the corporate world, as head of engineering of a technology company, he started his own technology consulting business, helping high-tech and biotech companies streamline their product development processes. Dilip’s third career was working as a marketing consultant helping Fortune-500 companies dramatically improve their sales, based on a novel concept. It is during this work that Dilip realized that the greatest challenge most corporations face is available leadership resources and effectiveness; too many followers looking up to rudderless leadership.

Dilip then decided to work with corporations helping them understand the leadership process and how to increase leadership effectiveness at every level. Soon afterwards, when the job-market tanked in Silicon Valley in 2001, Dilip changed his career track yet again and decided to work initially with many high-tech refugees, who wanted expert guidance in their reinvention and reemployment. Quickly, Dilip expanded his practice to help professionals from all walks of life.

Now in his fifth career, Dilip works with professionals in the Silicon Valley and around the world helping with reinvention to get their dream jobs or vocations. As a career counselor and life coach, Dilip’s focus has been career transitions for professionals at all levels and engaging them in a purposeful pursuit. Working with them, he has developed many groundbreaking approaches to career transition that are now published in five books, his weekly blogs, and hundreds of articles. He has worked with those looking for a change in their careers–re-invention–and jobs at levels ranging from CEOs to hospital orderlies. He has developed numerous seminars and workshops to complement his individual coaching for helping others with making career and life transitions.

Dilip’s central theme in his practice is to help clients discover their latent genius and then build a value proposition around it to articulate a strong verbal brand.

Throughout this journey, Dilip has come up with many groundbreaking practices such as an Inductive Résumé and the Genius Extraction Tool. Dilip owns two patents, has two publications in the Harvard Business Review and has led a CEO roundtable for Chief Executive on Customer Loyalty. Both Amazon and B&N list numerous reviews on his five books. Dilip is also listed in Who’s Who, has appeared several times on CNN Headline News/Comcast Local Edition, as well as in the San Francisco Chronicle in its career columns. Dilip is a contributing writer to several publications. Dilip is a sought-after speaker at public and private forums on jobs, careers, leadership challenges, and how to be an effective leader.



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