The first thing to remember when working with a bully is this: It’s not your fault.

Share story

Q: My boss is a bully, but her behavior falls just short of what I would consider HR-level offenses. I find myself feeling defenseless and like I should be able to handle her digs and undermining. How should I handle this?

A: The first thing to remember when dealing with a bully is this: It’s not your fault.

The problem is that so often bullying undermines our self-confidence, creating a downward spiral. I sense that this is occurring for you, based on your question.

So let’s start by building you back up. Setting aside the downer people in your life, make a list of your fan club.

Who are the people who value your work, and are your allies and advocates at work? Make this list as long as you can to help you recognize the web of benefits you bring to your organization. Do the same thing for your personal life, including family, friends and relationships you have with organizations outside of work.

Take this deeper by writing down some anecdotes about your contributions. To make it more emotionally powerful, take the point of view of the person you have helped.

Also try considering what a situation would have been like in your absence, or pretend you are describing contributions your best friend made. Don’t be modest; this is for your eyes only to help move you out of the emotional morass a bully can create.

Now consider whether her behavior is representative of your organization’s overall culture. If not, odds are more in your favor of positive change, and I would recommend that you document the incidents that have occurred.

Also keep in mind that you may not be the best judge of the severity of the offenses. Companies depend on keeping good employees, and toxic managers can be a major liability.

If you find that the organization is generally a decent place to be, consider chatting with HR or other leadership to identify options for next steps. There may be a good fit for you on another team, which may also provide an opportunity for some professional growth.

However, if she’s typical of the leadership style of the company, I would push you a bit on why you would want to stay. There is no “should” in tolerating bad behavior and no call for loyalty on your part.

If you decide that there are better options, don’t waste time in exploring them. It’s harder to find a job once you are unemployed, and you cut the risk of jumping into another bad situation if you are not desperate.

In the meantime, take some steps to buffer the impact your boss has on you. To the extent possible, minimize your contact with her, perhaps including others in your meetings, as most bullies save their worst behavior for in private.

Try walking away if she is shouting or if her comments digress into badgering. Try developing a neutral statement such as, “I have all the info I need for now, so I’ll get back to work” as an escape route.

And remember, her behavior reflects on her, not you, so stay strong as you work to get out of this challenging situation.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at