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Bullying bosses negatively impact employee performance and behavior (pdx.edu)
96 points by EndXA 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

I just put in my notice at my current job (which I’ve only had for six months) due to an abusive boss. I’ve always been great at my job, received a lot of praise for my work, and generally felt motivated to give and do way more than was asked. Not at this job. My manager’s behavior and attitude totally dragged me down and I’ve been the least motivated I’ve ever been. I’ve been depressed and stressed and basically shut down at work. Because of that, I’m going back to an old job to work for a manager who was much more positive and supportive.

The adage about employees leaving managers absolutely applies in this circumstance.

Been there done that... and it was the best decision I made for my career. Good luck with yours!

Hey mate. Can you share some of the behaviours (while not giving away any personal details) as that would helpful for managers and employees in better identifying it and with it?

Sure. Just a few things that stand out:

- Constant criticism and nitpicking. Essentially I feel like nothing I do is right and even the smallest mistakes get a private Teams message about how I shouldn’t have done X, and then any apology from me is basically met with “Ok” as a response rather than any sort of empathy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like small mistakes in a new position were never allowed.

- Micromanaging and controlling. They referred to themselves as a “dictator” on more that one occasion and had a “my way or the highway” attitude. I was hired on at a senior level and essentially ended up with close to zero input on design choices, so basically I stopped giving my opinion because I knew it would always be met with being shut down.

- I also felt singled out and was essentially told not to socialize in our Teams channels. This cut me off from the team quite a bit and made me feel totally isolated. I’d also try to suggest things globally so that knowledge could be shared and discussed with everyone. Again, I’d get a follow up message on Teams about how I shouldn’t be doing that and any suggestions like that need to be discussed with the manager first.

That’s just a few things. Overall, it’s just a feeling of not having any autonomy and any attempts to gain any being shut down. I want to say they maybe feel threatened, but I don’t like to jump to that conclusion.

Maybe it’s not yelling and screaming, but it’s a more passive-aggressive type of abuse and toxicity that in some ways digs deeper because it’s not easy to pick up on immediately or as visible.

Damn that is toxic! Thanks for sharing mate. Glad you are getting out. Hope you didn't have any Visa issues that would have made the stay unnecessarily longer. I know how stressful it is to stick at a job just because you need to. Hope your next role and manager are energizing and engaging!

Thanks! Fortunately I don’t have any Visa issues to deal with. Could have been a nightmare otherwise.

I put my notice in last week and they terminated me early today because they didn’t “have anything left for me to do” in the next few days, which I think is code for “I’m pissed you’re leaving so I’m going to make it look like I’m in control”.

> abusive supervision, which is becoming increasingly common in workplaces, said Liu-Qin Yang, the study's co-author

That abuse is increasing might be less obvious than the conclusion in the article link text. Good to have data on both of course.

My wife currently works for a place with a new senior director, a malevolently toxic psychopath. Her direct supervisor's hair has gone from brown to grey in only a couple months, and from conversation it sounds like yearly employee turnover has increased from maybe 10% to around 90%.

This is impacting my wife's health and happiness, so I'm encouraging her not to give customary 2 weeks notice after getting a new job. I think the circumstances warrant it.

As an aside, Wim Hof Method breathing has made an incredible difference for both of us and I feel so fortunate to have come across it during this challenging time. It makes stress management so much easier, while the nice things are so much brighter and more joyful.

Assuming you're in the US, and not under a contract that says otherwise, a two-week (or any) notice is entirely a courtesy. And if you're not being treated courteously at work, I don't see a good reason to be one-way about it.

I do see a reason: even if the boss may be abusive, not giving sufficient notice would flag you down with HR so they may not ever hire you again. Maybe not so important for smaller firms, but if this is a place she would like to work again, might make things a little more hairy.

If you're quitting over bullying, _and_ you are concerned that HR would flag you as unhireable for pointing that out to them, why would you care to work there again?

You may be burning bridges but those bridges didn't take you anywhere you wanted to go anyway.

If one exec makes 90% of the people quit it will not take long until that exec is fired or they have to close down.

I'd also be curious about the criteria for "abuse" and "bullying". I imagine there are technical definitions but I did not see any in the abstract.

I've found there is massive deviation between what co-workers I've worked with define those personally as. To the level where one might consider a behavior helpful and uplifting and another would consider that identical behavior abusive and emotionally crushing.

Hint: if a worker perceives it as bullying, it probably is. It’s the responsibility of those in charge not to behave that way. The fact that people exhibit variance is part of the job of being a good manager.

Bottom line: if you’re being described as an abusive boss, you’re bad at your job. And you don’t get to take credit for the amazing work that may be being done below you by people who are professionals despite your behaviour.

As someone else just pointed out, this can be highly subjective.

An audio clip of Stephen Wolfram was recently posted on HN, in which he was dealing with a couple of team members on their API documentation.

Some described it as "toxic bullying", but even more said "That is incredibly tame and I take no issue with it". I fell into the latter.

Some people are a whole lot more fragile than others.

Yeah, that Wolfram clip sounds like an exasperated boss dealing with some people who aren't 100% aware of his expectations.

Wolfram doesn't at any point (at least while recording) make it about the team members themselves, just the work they've done.

I've had a bunch of conversations like these with a boss of some kind, so I know how awkward and unpleasant it is, but it's also an opportunity to learn a bunch of stuff.

> Some people are a whole lot more fragile than others.

A slightly more charitable way to phrase this might be “Some people prefer to be treated as professionals, with dignity and respect.”

I think what the poster above you was trying to get across is, part of a leaders role is to distinguish what works best for their different team members. While some people may enjoy being treated less than respectful, others may not.

> A slightly more charitable way to phrase this might be “Some people prefer to be treated as professionals, with dignity and respect.”

You've just proved my point - what I might consider "handling a fragile ego with kid-gloves", you would consider to be "handling professionally with dignity and respect". It's all very subjective.

I think we would agree that a company's leaders need to be consistent and clear where they think the line is, and keep an eye on performance levels to determine if they've made a mistake.

I'm curious - mind linking to the audio clip? I'd like to see what argument I gravitate towards.

Here are my scribbled notes while listening to this just now

* wolfram sounds reasonable - a bit of a disconnect (lack of structure/procedure) between boss & employees. * Lack of high-level process. (for documenting) * Employees should have done the docs as part of the deliverable - and may have needed more support/training/guidance, and not have realised the extent this was required - maybe a managerial failure? * Docs were a mess - should ... lack of workflow to produce the docs - managerial failure? * Employees seem a bit clueless. * doing docs at all - fucking genius idea! and they have a docs team.

By 'managerial failure' I mean wolfram's.

So, assuming this review was typical, not a carefully chosen one designed to give a good impression, then given the bosses I've had to work for I'd say anyone who thinks that was 'bullying' needs some serious fucking life experience. I would be really grateful to have someone who didn't explode into anger, patronise, shout, ask for far too much (mucho free overtime Edit: entirely unpaid), disregard advice based on my 20 years experience in DBs because boss read a book and misunderstood it, expected (gasp!) actual documentation to be part of the deliverable...

Fuck, I'm seriously angry that anyone could consider this unreasonable. He was anything but. How could anyone think that?

disclaimer, I've no link to wolfram or any of his products or companies or affiliates. I'd be extremely happy to work for him after this. (further disclaimer, I'm not the easiest/brightest person to work with so I don't mind getting yelled at when I deserve it, but very often I don't)

A lot of people commenting about this are talking about sensitive people. Although I would never admit to this publicly I am a sensitive person. Getting chewed out in an aggressive tone, getting yelled at, or chewed out for extended periods of time can significantly impact my productivity in spite of my efforts to toughen up. In the workplace I would be that guy after 24:00 who is still diligently accepting feedback but who you can detect the stress levels of due to the length of the feedback and Wolfram's increasing irritation.

Holy shit though people calling the above video bullying have no idea. There's no hint of sadism. There's no hint of using aggression as a persuasive tool. No hint of coercion. He's just irritated and there are visible signs of restraint and attempts to mediate this irritation.

> Although I would never admit to this publicly I am a sensitive person

you say it as if it's a weakness but why? Rhetorical question, but a valid one.

> Getting chewed out in an aggressive tone, getting yelled at, or chewed out for extended periods of time can significantly impact my productivity

Mine too! That stuff can cut deeply; don't imagine it washes off me just because I can usually handle it. I've been left literally shaking after someone's had a go at me, and it has added to my long-term mental health problems. It affects my work very negatively - it deteriorates. I remember wanting to punch myself in the face on the train on the way home I was so upset, less than a year ago. It should not happen.

> in spite of my efforts to toughen up

I really do not know if that's something a person can do to themselves. Or should? I don't mind if I fuck up and get it in the neck but if I get it in the neck cos someone's rowed with their BF last night then I shouldn't have to deal with it at all. But that's life I suppose.

There is such a thing as oversensitivity. Something that makes me persue the mildest workplaces working mostly with a small familiar team. If I get tougher I get more oppertunities. So I work to get tougher so I can get what I want.

> if a worker perceives it as bullying, it probably is

I think it's actually dangerous to automatically judge yourself based on how individual people perceive you without further discussion or investigation.

If your peer group or your friends or people you respect enough that they can tell you the truth are fairly consistent in their analysis of the situation, then yes, listen.

If an individual thinks you're bullying them, it's certainly appropriate to inquire and empathize and agree with them if you choose.

But to default to the assumption that someone else's judgement of you is correct is a quick way to lose touch with your own beliefs.

> Bottom line: if you’re being described as an abusive boss, you’re bad at your job.

There is such a thing as highly over-sensitive people. There are people who suffer from things like high paranoia, and their paranoia will often be directed at any authority figures in their life. I think you should have left things at "probably".

And there are abusive people who skirt by in their organizations by saying that their victims are just too sensitive.

This is likely true, but it does not negate the notion that some people are very sensitive.

For example, you've ever played on a competitive sports team, or were in the military, you may be desensitized to some things that some may consider aggressive.

Cultural issues are important as well: some cultures argue, others do not. Some cultures vocalize objections, some do not. Some are direct, some indirect.

Germans and Dutch are really direct - their candor may be perceived as harsh by some. That said, they're also very emotionally calm.

I grew up 1/2 Irish/Scottish in a big family, my god man did we argue (and still do). But it's just arguing, it doesn't mean much. I'd call it 'emotive verbalization' and there's no name calling or anything.

Often someone can be loud and direct, and it seems terse, but if you actually listen, they might not be condescending, name calling or anything. It just feels that way.

Some people are also simply not used to actually being held accountable. A boss who suddenly draws some hard lines ... this may make some feel uncomfortable.

Some people confuse negative articulation of work as an insult i.e. "this is sht" might be interpreted as "you are sht" when it's not.

None of this remotely excuses actual bullying - I'm just saying there's a lot of grey and context.

So if someone is constantly threatening, name calling, publicly admonishing, being unfair, demeaning, inconsistent, derogatory, digging into personal issues - this is bullying.

But being demanding, loud, assertive, and sometimes being angry (so long as it's not directed at anyone) - this may or may not be bullying.

More poignantly - the article does woefully lack information about specific kinds of bullying behaviour, that's in fact the very first thing on my mind as I read it. This is really subjective stuff, it needs to be spelled out.

Bullying isn't that difficult. It has a definition. It's not momentary anger or a general outburst or even a persistent bad temper. Bullying is a persistent pattern of behavior directed at a specific person for the purpose of intimidation or coercion or establishing power over the person.

A supervisor can be generally unpleasant, impatient, lacking empathy, and demanding and not be a bully.

I agree (great definition BTW) but in my experience, in the real world, I suggest the term gets broadly and crudely applied.

A good boss would realize this and tailor their communication style appropriately.

I think the word "bullying" is too amorphous to be useful. It would be more helpful to break down specific behaviors that describe the interactions between bosses and employees using those words. Accessible? Transparent? Consistent? Those a just a few that spring to mind.

I had a colleague who managed to get insulted every time I said something about him.

Then in one meeting I decided to play safe and said nothing. He complained to the big boss about being disrespectfully ignored.

Good days were these!

If you are being literal when you say "a worker" then that is an outrageous claim. Workers aren't magically better than managers at managing relationships, they misread situations as well.

If you mean "[the workforce as a whole] perceives bullying" then yeah, probably. If two+ people quit citing "bullying" then there is possibly a problem. Three+ and it is likely.

I think the circumstances warrant it.

Absolutely, from what you've said.

Supervisors "rage-fire" people on the spot all the time, often with little or no direct justification -- other than the manager having a momentary break, essentially. I've seen this happen many, many times.

So really, don't even think about the necessity of extending the courtesy, in this case.

Really? At every mid-sized to large company I have worked at, supervisors couldn't fire anybody, only HR could.

It's definitely more a thing for smaller companies.

What is a workable solution to this problem? How does a company prevent it?

In the US if you're working under a bully, you can't really call them out because they'll punish you, you can't go to HR because they'll defend the bully and you'll be poisoned now in the eyes of other managers. You can't go to your skip level, because they're permitting the behavior, and if they're not then (too often) you'll be the lone voice saying this as everyone else is afraid and just wants to keep their jobs. So the skip level just assumes you're the problem. And so on.

Trade unionism springs to mind. If the hierarchy is broken, you've got to organise against it. Yes you can quit and join somewhere else, but if the behaviour is actually spreading then eventually you're going to run out of good employers to work for.

The only other thing is the company pushing an anti-bullying drive from the very top level with a shakeup of the management structure to break up any structures which keep the behaviour in place, but that's unlikely if the company believes that management bullying is either a non-issue or actively condones it (perhaps because they believe that the bullying behaviour keeps workers in line).

Get a new job, unfortunately.

I worked at a place where the CTO churned the entire staff twice in two years.

He was a pathetic asshole, came from a wealthy background and waltzed into the executive class. He got hired and fired me so he could hire his friends. ( Which was honestly a good call, they needed a senior angular developer and I was a DevOps / Back-end engineer making it work. ) But what he said when he fired me has stuck with me ever since: "We have a different definition of what quality is. You no longer work here."

I have excelled at most of the jobs I have held. This dude's rudeness absolutely blew my mind.

He still works there. I'm sure he is doing well. The executive class never pay for their mistakes, only us lowly workers.

All true. The only winning move is not to play (quit)

Bullying in most cases is a business strategy.

See also Amazon. I’ve heard too many stories and seen it first hand (it didn’t work on me, but they sure tried).

I’m pretty worried about the future of software in Seattle. So many new grads learning bad habits and then moving on to other companies. It’s a lot to unlearn.

My college friend told me about his terrible experience working in Amazon AWS. This was not a developer position and he has degrees from major universities and solid prior experiences. The experience was so degrading he quit after a few months and took some time off to recoup. He is now much happier working somewhere out of tech industry.

I wish Amazon had a better way for teams or projects to fail gracefully. Part of the companies strategy/competitive advantage is the ability to quickly spin up new projects/teams in a decentralized way. However, that also means lots will fail -- which is fine. But then for the individual managers on those teams, they often become stressed, toxic, and bully their subordinates.

Yeah I meant to point out that the form of bullying seems to be shame based rather than intimidation. But I count them both as bullying.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words hurt the worst.

They must run through a lot of people? I get several recruiting e-mails from them a week.

Can you provide more details about how it didn’t work for you? Just want to learn how you handled it

You keep a file with all the bullying (dates, emails, anyone else in the room, etc). Collect all that then plan your exit. During your exit interview explain the bullying and give them a copy of the file. Be polite and professional.

You’ll be burning bridges, but you don’t wanna go back.

Let’s be frank, quite often not only do HR know, they’ve been actively protecting these people for years.

I realize that. What they may not know is how many people have left directly because of that bad manager.

>During your exit interview explain the bullying and give them a copy of the file.

If it gets to the point where I'm quitting because of it, why would I bother giving them the record of evidence? Why would I want to improve the organization that I am leaving?

Put explicitly, if the work culture is such that I don't have reasonable avenues to improve the situation without quitting (e.g. via HR and skip level), then I really don't care to help them out when I've given up hope for them. If they want to improve, they should set it up such that the only way to improve is by employees quitting. People usually don't quit capriciously. It's a tough decision, and a lot of work to find a desirable alternative job. I don't want to give them charity on my way out, especially if they've wasted a significant amount of my off-work time looking for a job.

Maybe you like some of your co-workers, or maybe you just want to leave a better situation for the next person. Some folks just don't like entropy.

Frankly, I don't think it would do any good at all anyway. HR will just ignore it, and some damn fool might decide to call you a troublemaker later on. HR does love its status quo.

I think this is only worth doing if you plan to stay and you are willing to make an effort to get the person fired. If you have already moved on it smacks of taking revenge and can have career downsides.

>> can have career downsides.

Not really. If they are indeed a psychopath - you'll definitely find support from other people who understand their dysfunction. They'll be happy to support you next time as you were the one to call them up on that.

I suppose you could leave a review somewhere like GlassDoor? You're not allowed to single out bosses, but detailing the culture could help someone else from making the same mistake, and can force the company to change their ways if it's preventing them from hiring good people.

Leak video evidence. This is only going to keep getting worse unless we make examples out of them.

Two party audio recording laws need to be repealed. Especially in the #metoo era. People need to be able to document abusive or illegal behavior without breaking the law.

How does a company prevent it? Don't promote bullies to management. If it's true that it hurts performance, then it's irrational even from a self-interested business perspective, and you are just shooting yourself in the foot.

Who would need a study to state the obvious? In which Universe is a bullying boss help a company? The only example that comes to my mind is when a corporation wants to reduce workforce but doesn’t want to pay severance pay. But this puts people’s health at risk and who in his right mind could want this? I’m working for a SaaS company who takes very much care of its employees and I’m asking myself if I am just naive...

> In which Universe is a bullying boss help a company?

It is interesting that this question is not studied in a more systematic way. There are situations where having a 'thug' manager is the most effective approach to getting good outcomes. For instance, the same personality that is hard on reports can be very effective in standing up to customers. Viewed from the perspective of the company as a whole, this might be a reasonable economic trade-off, which explains why such a management style would be tolerated.

(Confession: I am a consensus-style manager. The only time I've been fired on a project was a case where my manager judged he needed somebody to crack heads to get the project done. It was painful personally but I think he made the correct decision.)

Even if something seems obvious to you it’s still best to verify it rigorously.

From a cynical point of view a bullying boss might be able to extract more working hours out of employees, or get them to upsell products at places like Best Buy.

Absolutely, 'What everyone knows' has been so frequently wrong throughout history, a few people get ill and suddenly that harmless old lady who lives alone outside the village is on the bonfire...

Humans are terrible at attributing cause and effect without a rigourous way of reproducing it.

Abusive people act abusively because it often gets them what they want at the expense of everything else. An abusive boss might get increased productivity from their subordinates in the short term at the long term expense of the organization itself.

Pity that it takes research to state the obvious. Pity that unless specific well defined behaviour is explicitly penalized, bullies will continue with it - with poker face and shrugging on any attempt to call out their abusive practices.

What would you do if you had an abusive boss in a dream workplace like Google/FB or even higher rated companies like Lightbend/JetBrains and your boss & HR teamed up on you? (Purely hypothetically/asking for a friend)

Would you even have any desire to continue in tech if the "world's best company" gaslighted you and tried to destroy you?

Is there any known way for an institution to detect and remove abusers given victims are afraid to talk (rightly so)? What if something really dark resurfaced from your favorite director's past? Cover it up and pretend it didn't happen?

Big companies like Google usually have internal mobility programs which, in my experience, work pretty well.

Do you know more about it? I am building a company and want to avoid the "kiss up" effect when I only get heavily filtered/biased info from subordinates that are afraid of being presented in bad light, and team up together to "adjust" facts, discarding innocent people in the process.

Alas I don't know the internals of it, I'm as far from the HR department as it can be. But here's what I've noticed:

- regular performance feedback, not only from the bosses, but from the peers as well. First, it gives you a good understanding of internal connections and relations. Second, it makes much harder for some bad mid-level boss to say "this guy has always been a loser": it had to be backed up by the historical evidence.

- internal mobility is explicitly encouraged. Bosses know that having a one of your guys in another department improves your communication network and makes dealing with that department much easier.

In other breaking news: the Pope is a Catholic.

I have an abusive manager horror story from 2014-2015 Seattle Amazon. I opted to quit rather than being subjected to further abuse. The manager's name was Maulik Patel. He had the worst attributes you could ask for in a manager. Unsupportive, jaded, and emotionally draining. He kept threatening to fire me but never would...for something like 4 months until I said fuck it and quit. His main reasons were that I wasn't fast enough despite finishing the tickets in my sprints pretty much all the time. He had a vendetta against me for being hired to do the job he couldn't. He had flat files of libraries like jQuery and KnockoutJS and d3 committed into our repo. He used the synchronous ajax call flag to download language files...freezing every page for a quarter of a second. There was no way to upgrade all our libraries or fork them properly without undoing all of his mess.

I put us on Bower for web packages and rerolled everything. He was pissed about that. Pissed I fixed his mistakes. He would say things like I am level 4 so I need to pull tickets from the next sprint when I am done with the current sprint. Fundamentally he did not understand what role management had in planning and how to do it properly without antagonizing individual contributors.. Maulik attacked team members including me with qualitatives like slow and fast. He would spread his hands like he was showing a quantity and say you are here but need to here [moves hand higher.]

It was his first time as a manager. When I took the job Jeff Grote was actually signed on to be my manager..but Jeff pulled a bait and switch early into my start..sticking Maulik as a middle manager under himself. Coulda all been avoided if Jeff did me proper.

When I left I sent an email to the team explaining my grievances which I felt they deserved but which is for sure unprofessional. I probably shoulda went to HR but I had heard bad things about HR at large companies. Couldnt have been worse than not getting severence or unemployment. Live and learn... Care to share any similar stories? Would probably make me feel better to hear how someone else dealt with a bad manager scenario. If not its fine.

Here's an email I had sent to Jeff (his manager):

Jeff, I'm coming to you about Maulik's behavior. Literally, it's so bad that even when I come home, or I'm off on weekends, I'm thinking about how to deal with the guy. It's totally unsuitable for job satisfaction. My job satisfaction isn't even reflecting the tickets I do anymore, it's literally tarnished, shit on, by the passive-agressive comments Maulik makes on the regular, he usually sticks a smiley face at the end of his insults as if that makes them less offensive.

When I came onboard, the javascript and front-end workflow and ui, and code, were absolute chaos. I am not one to cry over spilled milk. I fixed 90% of it and did not insult Maulik, because I understand that it isnt productive to do so.

However, I don't know why Maulik feels the need to stomp on me for what amounts to the smallest kind of things. If you look at my ticket resolving rate, I'm like a speed demon, Ashley can vouch for this. So I'm getting my job done.

But either Maulik has a personality or managerial deficit, he is somewhat envious that I am doing a category of task right (front-end) that he only was shoddily able to do. Or he has no idea, is oblivious, and thinks his unelegant and critical behavior is conducive to being a good manager. And it isn't, I can tell you, based on my satisfaction and willingness to do good work. He's going against that with his continued vitriol.

For example, this timezone issue. He has 100 other issues to deal with. And he chooses to spend 20 minutes researching and finding a different library than the one I used (Which he may not have found...20 minutes could end up empty handed..) Just so he can trump me.

And it's a habit with Maulik. He ended up saying "This kind of research is what is expected from an Amazon engineer."

All too common for me to talk to him, and then he ends up using corporate culture rhetoric to crap on me. "Andrew, most people don't last long here. A lot of people get fired. Amazon culture, you need to learn it" Intimidation tactics, dismissal of my concerns, and basically abusing the idea of Amazon culture to avoid taking personal responsibility.

I really need you to step in here and deal with Maulik. He's a new manager and is showing it. A good manager is supposed to improve the teams efficiency, correct? He's actually making me not want to work, because of the amount of vitriol I get for performing well. It's anti-correlated. It's negative reinforcement.

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