Dealing with Abusive Bosses!

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 company’s recent launch events my client, his entire workgroup, his immediate manager, and his boss—an EVP—were 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 customer’s 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 manager’s 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 client’s 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 client’s 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!

Begin the journey to your new career today.