How to cope with a female bully boss


Sometimes 'mean girls' who cruelly judge and ridicule their peers grow up to be bosses who bully. What's a woman to do when her boss is making her life miserable? Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out has good advice for anyone coping with a female boss who is a bully.

How to cope with a female bully boss Dealing with a female manager who is a bully can be damaging to your self-esteem and your productivity. If you are emotionally compromised at work, it is likely that you will be professionally compromised, as well.

Here are some tips on how to cope with women who bully in the workplace.

  • Workplace bullies are fequently passive-aggressive in an effort to keep others off balance in the workplace. They may subtly try to get coworkers or employees to second-guess themselves. They may create confusion about dates, deadlines, events and deliverables.  One of the ways women show power over each other is by controlling and protecting their version of events.  The best way to combat this is to document all important events and keep a detailed log of activities.
  • Holding back information is another common way women bully each other in the workplace. If you are not given critical pieces of information your work may be compromised.
  • Try to avoid becoming isolated at work. Make an effort to build relationships with a variety of people in your organization. Doing so will help you know that you aren't crazy -- because that is often what happens -- you think you know one thing and the person in a position of authority is telling you something else.  When you become isolated, it is hard not to second-guess and doubt your feelings and observations about being bullied.  
  • Ultimately, you have to figure out if you can handle her behavior and having a conversation with her is a place to begin. However, it is critical to understand that if you do confront a bullying boss, don't expect her behavior to change.  Chances are, if she behaves this way as an adult, that's the way she will continue to behave.  
  • If you do choose to confront a bully boss, use "I" statements rather than "you" statements. "You" statements are usually perceived as aggressive: "You" statements frequently lead to anger, defensiveness and hurt feelings, as people feel accused by them. On the other hand, "I" statements are usually perceived as being appropriately assertive and non-threatening.
  • When confronting a bullying boss, come prepared with specific examples and don't be afraid to ask questions such as, "Did I do something to offend you? Did something happen? Do you want to talk about it?"
  • Some corporate cultures foster a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" approach that endorses a particular brand of aggression as a way to negotiate and accomplish goals.  The mantra, "It's not personal...It's just business" is often shorthand for saying that aggression is permitted in the workplace. That said, if a bullying boss crosses the line and you believe the behavior is harassment, or you feel unsafe and/or unable to be productive, you should go to your human resources department to discuss the issue.

Never underestimate the importance of your quality of life at work.   So, at the end of the day, you have to decide if you can handle the antics of a bullying boss and a work culture that tolerates the behavior or whether it is best for you to leave the job.




Lisa:  I'm Lisa Birnbach for Howdini dot com. Now, what if the bullies that you grew up with become employers and you end up working for a mean girl?  To discuss this is Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, published by Harcourt. 

What happens?  I mean, those mean girls grow up, they don't all get nice.

Rachel: They do.  It's just so disturbing how parallel the behaviors are of 40, 50, 60-year old women and fifth graders.  It just doesn't seem to change. So, it's a terrible thing when you find yourself in that position. And, I think the number one thing you've got to do is to document what is happening. You need to keep a log and make sure.  Because I think one of the ways that women show power over each other -- negative power -- is by controlling their version of events.  So, for example, you'll say "wait a minute, I thought the meeting was on Monday" and the person will say, "No, I told you it was on Tuesday", and you could have sworn it was on Monday and yet somehow that person is making you believe that it was another way, so you start to second-guess yourself, you start to get confused. So, keep track of everything that's happening. 

Also, don't let yourself get isolated in the office. Because of that control, because they [bullies] can sort-of get you in their thrall, make sure you develop other relationships so that you can know that you're not crazy - because that is very often what will happen - that you will begin to think that you are crazy because you will think you know one thing and the other person is telling you something else. So, make sure you are not isolated.

Lisa:  Should you confront this woman?  If you remember the behavior, if she suddenly triggers old, bad feelings that you had when you were a kid?

Rachel: Yeah, you should confront her, but don't expect her to change her behavior; it will not change.  Either you will figure out a way to work there in a productive a way as possible, or you will have to leave the job. I don't want to make any bones about it. But, if by that time that's the way she is acting, the that's the way she's always going to act.  When you confront her come with your examples; make sure, because likely she will deny it. Be prepared to ask questions.  Don't be afraid to say, "Did I do something to offend you?", "Did something happen?", "Do you want to talk about it?"  If she continues to play dumb, list your examples, speak in terms of your own experience - do not begin sentences with "you embarrassed me when you did this", but say, "I felt embarrassed when this happened at such and such a meeting", or "I feel very worried because i feel like I don't get the information that I need to have."  Holding information back is one of the primary ways that women bully each other at work; not telling them, not giving them critical pieces of information.  So,  if you are not getting information from someone, that is an aggressive act.

Lisa: So, that's passive-aggressive behavior that is used to sabotage other women, because some women feel like there can only be one of us in this workplace?

Rachel:  It could be that. There is definitely more aggressive behavior, too. I mean, people will get other women in the workplace not to like someone and to exclude them. So, you'll walk into the lunch room and you'll get funny looks and you're 35 years old and in an office space.

Lisa:  Is it correct to think that the women who are mean at work are the same people growing up who were mean in high school or middle school?

Rachel:  I think there are some aggressive girls who outgrow their behavior and become very penitent; they feel badly about what they did; they try to be better.  There are others who don't.  Some of the new research on girls out there is looking at how people who are identified as physically aggressive when they are in preschool tend to grow out of it, but when they are identified as more psychologically aggressive in the manner of the stereotypical "mean girl", that behavior tends to remain consistent over time. So, there is a lot of evidence mounting that says that when you start out this way, that's who you become, which of course is why it is so important to start interventions early.

Lisa: What about corporate cultures that really foster Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality?

Rachel:  That is an excellent question and I think in part we definitely live in a society where "it's not personal, it's business". In fact, I think 'The Apprentice' television show, that was their whole slogan and that of course is endorsing a particular brand of aggression that becomes acceptable as a way to negotiate, as a way to accomplish your goals. And so, I think increasingly we are living in a culture that gives this behavior permission.  

Lisa: Absolutely.

Rachel:  At the same time, having said that, there is such a thing as harassment; there is such a thing as an unsafe working environment  and if you don't feel safe, and if you are being hurt, you should go to your human resources representative. You should explain what is happening to you and make the argument that you aren't able to be productive.

Lisa:  So ultimately Rachel, if you are confronted with someone who is really diabolical in the workplace, you do have recourse? But if the culture endorses it you may have to look elsewhere.

Rachel: You've got to get out. I think you can't overestimate the importance of your quality of life at work.  If you are emotionally compromised, you will be professionally compromised.

Lisa:  I'm afraid that's true. That's right.  Thank you so much.  This has been fascinating.   For Howdini dot com, I'm Lisa Birnbach.

meet theexpert
  • Rachel Simmons

    Rachel Simmons Author, Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons is a best selling author and Founding Director of the Girls Leadership Institute. more about this expert »

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