Coaching the "Bully Boss"

I recently read an article by the New York Times News Service about abusive bosses.  The piece was centered around a US Senator who has been called a “volatile, high-handed boss who often demeaned and humiliated people who work for her.”


But this post has nothing to do with politics.


The story goes on to cite several experts and studies that show that these "bully" bosses are unlikely to be successful leaders and, in fact, do not achieve long-term success.


I’ve worked with, and for, my share of bullies, both men, and women.   And I've coached teams that struggle with an abusive leader or team member.  I have always wondered why anyone would think for a minute that they will get the best of someone by belittling them, yelling at them or bullying them in general.  We all know that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers – and organizations that allow managers to be bullies. 


I always thought that these bully bosses knew they were doing this, but through my work at a Strengths coach, I now realize that may not be the case.  They may simply not know how to control themselves and see themselves as motivating.  Many bosses and teammates who behave this way may be blessed with the talent of "command" or "achiever" or "activator" (or a combination of these), and they just don't know how to aim them accurately to motivate and inspire versus belittling and humiliating.


Good coaching with a focus on small changes over time can help tremendously in re-routing bully behavior to be more productive.  Here’s what that might look like:


  1. Identify talents:  Once people have taken their CliftonStrengths assessment, they are usually stunned at how accurate the results are.  Having good coaching conversations around a person's talents open their eyes and mind to what their real potential is, and it also opens the conversation that not all people see the world through their lens.
  2. Understand the power of strengths and the impact when they hinder a person:  Each strength has the ability to do good or evil.  Spending time talking with people about instances they can recall when their strengths did damage to them, to others or to a project is a great way to re-align one’s thinking about their behavior.
  3. Build a plan:  Spend time talking about ways a person can dial back a strength when it is harmful.  What complementary strengths or different strengths do others have that they can call on?  How can they recognize when they are leveraging their strengths for good – or for not-so-good?


Coaching "bully bosses" can be a challenge.  However, when you start to see them break through and understand the impact of their behavior, versus the intention, it is incredibly rewarding.