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Beating a bullying boss

There are three ways to deal with office bullies. You can ignore them, confront them or report them to the boss.

But what do you do when the bully is your boss?

Delicate situation. You like your job. The money's good. The benefits are terrific. If only this creep would cease invading your head space. Odds are that isn't going to happen.

Once a bully has targeted you, he -- or she, since bullying is an equal-opportunity trait -- rarely moves on voluntarily. It's up to you to shake the bully off. Unfortunately, it's the bully that usually wins.

While a recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that most office bullying is worker-to-worker, dealing with an aggressor can be particularly dicey when the bully is in charge at the office.

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"Our data indicates that 70 percent of targets lose their jobs once they've been targeted; 33 percent leave voluntarily for health reasons and 36 percent are constructively discharged," says Gary Namie, co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. "The real risk is in being targeted in the first place."

Namie's organization defines bullying as "repeated, health-endangering mistreatment" through acts of commission (hostile verbal or nonverbal communication or interference) or omission (withholding resources such as time, information, training, equipment or support) aimed at fomenting chaos and divisiveness within the ranks.

Bully bosses come in a variety of styles, but each seeks the same goal: absolute control. They may spout the company line about teamwork and consensus building, but in practice, they're always looking out for numero uno. They're not after a win-win; they're out to win, period. In their view, everyone within the organization is either above or below them. Guess which way the abuse rolls?

Sam Horn, author of "Take the Bully By the Horns: Stop Unethical, Uncooperative or Unpleasant People from Running and Ruining Your Life," says bullies select their victims the way any predator does -- they prey on the easiest targets.

"Bullies will pick on nice people. They operate on a risk-reward ratio. They throw their stuff out there and test to see if they can knock you off balance, fluster you. If you are weak or just swallow it, the bully owns you," says Horn.

Namie says that while heavily profit-driven enterprises and time-intensive industries such as the news media frequently breed tyrants, bullies also are prevalent in such people-oriented fields as health care and teaching, where nice, well-intentioned targets abound.

Here's how to deal with one of life's least-pleasant scenarios.

1. Avoid becoming a target.
Got a bully for a boss? The first step is to avoid becoming a target.

Paul Babiak, a New York industrial-organizational psychologist and co-author of "Snakes in Suits," advises against trying to "help" or befriend a bully; their aggressive behavior hides an inner need that is well beyond reason.

"Studies indicate that bullies are actually inept people who are not talented, maybe have a rage against themselves that they express outward toward people they see as being better than they are. It's from a point of weakness that they express their violence toward others."

"Most people self-correct, they will even apologize," adds Horn. "Bullies never self-correct, and the reason is they hold everyone else responsible for their behavior. To change, you have to be willing to take responsibility for your own actions, and bullies do not. All of our reasonable, logical, compassionate attempts to get along with a bully will backfire."

To avoid being targeted, Horn suggests emulating the cat confronted by a dog: If the cat runs, the dog runs after it. But if the cat doesn't budge, the dog walks around it.

"In any office, you will find there are people the bully picks on and people the bully leaves alone," says Horn. "When we reverse the risk-reward ratio, when we give as good as we get, we're up to the bully's test.

"The only thing a bully respects is people who won't be bullied."

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-- Posted: Aug. 17, 2004
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