Larry was a bully boss. With only 3 employees in this office, he had burned through two secretaries and one office manager in one year. During our interview, he told me he came from a passionate culture and that his previous employees just didn’t “get him”.
Lucie, who was leaving, described his temper tantrums. Dramatic, impatient and erratic are not so much cultural traits as symptoms of a personality disorder. I was a single mom, running out of savings and employment insurance. Desperate for a job, I accepted. I was determined not to let my anxiety around further unemployment take over.
On my second day at work, Larry shouted at me for a file. He was neither polite nor was his volume appropriate. I calmly and deliberately brought him the wrong file. He had a temper tantrum. Yup, just like a three-year-old.
I let him rage and when he stopped for a breath, I calmly and firmly said, “I cannot hear what you need when you scream at me like that”.
My controlled reaction caught him completely off guard. He looked confused so I said it again, quietly. In a somewhat calm manner, he stated the name of the file again.
I walked out of his office to get the right file (which was waiting for me on the corner of my desk) and promptly gave it to him saying “I am happy to help when you don’t yell”. Looking surprised, Larry said “Thank you”.
I had established boundaries.
Returning to my desk, Lucie looked at me and said “I wish I had done that when I started.” Although my heart was in my mouth, I smiled as though I knew what I was doing.
I soon replaced the recently hired office manager (yes, she left too) and protected my staff from his tantrums over the next two years. People who had known him for years told me they had never seen him so well-managed. Even his wife kept telling me how great I was for her husband’s business and that I should never take his threats seriously.
HOW I CHANGED THE “POWER DYNAMICS” THE FIRST TIME LARRY FIRED ME
He actually fired me four times in those two years. And every time he fired me, I would calmly go back to my desk and resume my day. When he would come to my desk, I would tell him not to worry; I was just tidying up before I left.
In a panic, Larry would politely call me into his office and I would negotiate a raise to stay. When I left, I was earning 40% more than my initial salary.
The first firing is the most memorable because it set the dynamics for the next two years. In a fit of rage, while I was still on probation, he yelled that I was fired. I left his office and went to my desk to think of my next move. I could not afford to lose this steady income but the abuse had to stop.
Larry called me back into his office and said to me, “I had no idea you were so easily intimidated”. I smiled, laughed and said “You do not intimidate me”.
Sounding as serene as possible, I explained to him that I was unemployed before I accepted this job and that I would not be in any worse position than the day before I started. I would just go look for another job since this was obviously not a good fit.
He looked quite shocked when he heard me explain that I had nothing to lose by leaving.
I had already established excellent relationships with people at all the head offices he dealt with. After losing 3 employees in a very short time, I was banking on his bark being worse than his bite. His bravado of untouchable power seemed to vanish before me.
You need to know the bully’s hot button concern. They need to believe in the possibility of pain. Larry’s hot button was the stress of another new hire.
MY 3 SECRETS TO SUCCESS
1- While training dogs, I learned that growling and biting were signs of insecurity. The sooner you set boundaries and consistently stick to them, the dog calms down and modifies to his environment. Boundaries will be tested along the way, which is why Larry kept firing me and would give me a raise so I wouldn’t leave.
2- I used to work with children and I have an ex who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Larry’s was not the first temper tantrum I had encountered. Even if it is upsetting, staying calm and pointing out the advantages to different behaviors can help. I would remind him that I can’t hear what he needs when he yells. As soon as he stopped yelling, he got what he wanted.
3- One of the first things we teach parents in parenting classes is to look for natural consequences. Larry was the type of person where the consequences should either bring a great deal of pleasure or a great deal of pain. He had created his own consequence. When it looked like I might leave, he would contain himself for many months after dodging that bullet.
IS IT TIME TO LEAVE?
If the abusive behavior has been long standing, you will have a harder time as difficult people rely on the history you have shared as their behavioral guide. Some people cannot contain their dysfunctions unless you firmly start from day one.
A job is replaceable. So is a spouse or any abusive relationship. We cannot choose to change another person’s behaviors. They have to make that choice. The only thing we can do is give them a reason to consider doing so.
Find a painful natural consequence and be prepared to follow through. If that doesn’t work or you can’t follow through, then leave! Bullies have more stamina and you are ultimately responsible for protecting your mental well-being.
PS: Larry’s name has been changed as he liked to sue people.
Are you ready to discover better ways to play together at work?