Hostile Boss, Hostile Workplace: A Recipe for Positive Change

With the strong focus and support, an overly sharp-edged manager can indeed make modest changes that, over time, will considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

So-called nightmare bosses are much more common than any of us would hope. We all know or have worked with someone who’s overly critical or angry and generates stress all around them.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve coached a number of executives and emerging leaders who fit this profile.  During anonymous, 360-degree interviews, which I usually conduct at the start of my client engagement, colleagues described these individuals as quite angry, hostile, and/or volatile, who tended to bring out the worst in others.  In several interviews I was told the clients were bullies whose behavior created a “hostile workplace.”

Bullying, sadly, is trending—in schools, on social media, and across the political landscape. It’s increasingly common to hear accusations that certain managers create hostile workplaces by acting like bullies, too.

Since concerns about bullying have become more prevalent, I wanted to educate myself in the relevant legal perspective.  For that I turned to Mark Romeo, a Labor and Employment Law Partner at Crowell & Moring LLP.

“Being a mean manager doesn’t in itself create what is sometimes referred to legally as a ‘hostile work environment.’ In fact, while no one likes a hostile boss, unless you can show that negative, inappropriate or unwanted behavior is based on certain protected characteristics (for example, race, disability or gender) then the claim of a hostile work environment due to harsh or angry behavior is unlikely to be legally actionable.’” –Attorney Mark Romeo

Even so, hostile and/or bullying behavior significantly impacts people and organizations, whether the culprit is managing two people in a small firm or sitting on the Board of a Fortune 50. “You need a whole cleaning crew to mop up the messes they leave behind,” said one CEO.  Ultimately, bullying managers cause the performance of the team or organization to suffer, by eroding morale, increasing turnover, and even challenging cultural sustainability.  Some affected by bullying remain, and may clam up and vent privately, trying to “cope.” In general, those who stick around pay a hefty personal and professional price in stress, health issues, and loss of self-respect.

Often, the perpetually critical or angry manager or exec is a true believer in their harsh approach. For example, in interviews with their colleagues, I will hear, “He knows full well what he’s doing, and he believes it’s the way to get the best out of others.” Some bullying bosses may have had some psychological pain, trauma, or difficulty in their own personal or professional lives that has hardened them toward others. In both situations, it’s quite unlikely that their behavior will change without significant intervention, and if you work for or with them, you need to factor that reality into your career plan.

When Is this Behavior “Fixable”?

There’s another potential explanation behind overly angry or sharp-edged behavior: the existence of a blind spot around how one’s communication and actions impact others. This is much more prevalent.  I’ve coached several clients who fit this category. Their aggressive or sharp-edged behavior can either be part of a long-standing blind spot, or stem from a temporary condition due to stress or other circumstances. Discussing a specific example with a client who tended to lash out and send fiery emails, she told me, “I had every right to be angry with them!” Perhaps. But what she didn’t realize, and what was in her blind spot, were several important facts:

  • This reaction was a pattern for her. When we see this behavior once, we can expect it has been and will be repeated: she tended to lash out or process her anger or frustration in email or IM “nastygrams.”
  • When a senior leader repeatedly expresses frustration in person or electronically, it can destabilize an organization, shatter morale, and make people stop communicating the most important things its leaders need to know. It can also cause passive-aggressive retaliation on the part of those impacted.
  • She’s absolutely entitled to her feelings. But if she wanted to achieve sustained, effective leadership (which she did), it’s her job to process those feelings in a self-contained manner. Then, after the reactive sting wears off, she could decide calmly what communication, delivered in what way(s), would be most effective. My suggestion: generally, voice-to-voice, one-on-one, kindly, and privately.
  • When we react to something by taking action toward others in anger, we are not making a good leadership choice, nor are we operating at our smartest. I appreciate that one colleague said, “When you’re reacting angrily, your IQ drops 30 points.”

So…How Can Mean Managers Change Behavior?

Subtracting the unwanted behavior starts with the person’s awareness and genuine desire to change.  If a mean management approach is not her or his deliberate choice, but instead unintentional, then it’s also crucial that they get the right help and support. It takes patience too.  With the proper focus he or she can indeed make modest changes that, over time, can considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

As the saying goes, it “ain’t easy.”  Here’s how it works:

  1. Usually expertly-collected and analyzed interview-based anonymous 360-degree feedback from his or her colleagues is a good start. It shows them the impact they are having on others.  Also, this feedback can illuminate the patterns and triggers that cause them to flare up.
  2. A plan of action, including daily reminders in the form of practices or cheat sheets (I’ve also helped clients make mantras, wallpaper for phones and computers, wallet cards, etc.) to keep the desired behaviors, along with triggers, top of mind.
  3. Help with accountability from a coach, colleague, mentor, or friend.
  4. Clarity about how he or she will handle mistakes or slip-ups.
  5. A mechanism to do reality checks on progress and track change, that may, for example, include follow up 360-degree assessments after a reasonable amount of time has passed. Tracking progress, collecting follow-up feedback and suggestions, and making adjustments, as needed, are essential practices.

The strongest factors leading to success are his or her capacity for and commitment to change.  The winning recipe isn’t a cookie-cutter approach; it’s whatever fits that specific person.  Coaching can be a crucial tool. Other solutions can include counseling, mentoring, and friendships. Meditation, physical exercise, music, hobbies, and even reading or studies can act as enablers for change.  Those ingredients, individually or mixed, can provide a developmental roadmap that fits the person—and can make a huge difference in an individual’s ability to achieve and sustain a less reactive and more powerful and positive approach to management.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Special thanks to Eileen Harrington and Mark Romeo for their invaluable contributions to this piece.

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