My Boss Frequently Threatens Me!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about abusive boss:

I have a verbally abusive boss and have had very little help with upper management on bringing about changes in her behavior. Recently, she had asked me to work out a protocol for an experiment, and when I had her read it, she said it was “horrible.” It seems that the only things she can say to me are abusive rather than helpful. If she would have been patient enough to sit with me and explain her expectations, it would have given me additional information on what she intended for me to do.

Then it would have been done better to begin with.On other occasions, she will ignore my question for a couple of days before answering. For instance, I had asked a relevant question that would allow me to be able to effectively program a robot, but she advised me that I “should know that already,” instead of giving me the facts without berating me. How do I combat this issue and avoid being fired?I need to keep my job and have taken steps to look for better employment but the market is flooded with people who have more experience than I. I know that my response to the verbal abuse is not appropriate, but I have a “fight or flight” response due to the abuse I endured when I was a teenager and young adult. I cannot even think straight when I’m confronted with the abuse, so I try very hard to have nothing to do with my supervisor. Please, if you can offer any advice.

Signed, Need Help

Dear Need Help:

Having read your request for guidance, it is clear that you are very aware of your own feelings and your tendency to engage in “flight or fight” responses. This awareness will help you as you try to navigate the waters with this difficult boss. Part of the answer to your problem lies within your description of it. You spell out what would have been helpful to you such as having your boss sit down and explain the information needed and to clarify what is being expected of you. Try to state this to her clearly.

You will need to stay as centered as possible as you relate to this person in the future. By staying focused on what you need and how you feel, you can take the high ground in these exchanges. State directly to her that “horrible” is not helpful feedback and you would prefer in the future more specific instructions, clear expectations, and more useful feedback without delay so that you can do the best job for the company. You can try to look for common interests between you (productivity for the company, good reputation within your division, etc.) to appeal to this person.

Also, you may want to consider having a co-worker be present with you as you, or even request for a third-party to help you mediate with this person to get at some of these issues in a calm and constructive way. Because her behavior triggers associations of earlier abuse, you may find it helpful to talk with a counselor about your reactions to her if they are consistently clouding your ability to think clearly in situations like this. It is completely understandable that you are now avoiding this boss, but this may just make your relationship more strained and communication more difficult.

Try the element of surprise and ask this person about something you know they are interested in outside of work that could get them talking. It may also be helpful to document these episodes of outrageous behavior and continue to try to get support from upper management to address it.

Management may also be at a loss for how to handle this person. The slow and courageous work of standing your ground and peacefully and strongly stating what you need to do your job well could help you curb the flight or fight response and help you discover a third way of relating to people like this. Personal growth comes from difficulty, and the problem in front of you now could be disguising the exact medicine you need to better deal with this dynamic elsewhere and in the future. Self interest is natural and needed. Ego finds it richest expression in WEGO thinking and communication. Please feel free to keep us posted on what you do–what works and what does not.

Ian Heisey