I have unfortunately worked for more than one boss who was a bully. And since I started teaching, coaching, and consulting with individuals and organizations around bullying and mobbing behaviors, I’ve heard stories about many more. I recently did some consulting at a non-profit, and witnessed a bully very much like one of the (Division chair) managers who made my life a misery when I was a tenured professor. I call this type the blind self-righteous bully.
Here are some traits of the blind self-righteous bully:
- These bully bosses often have an absolute certainty they are unassailably right, that their decisions are beyond reproach and any mistakes they make are insignificant or don’t matter. They are completely blind to their own flaws.
- If you see things differently or take a different approach, or don’t do exactly what they believe is right, which you should know without being informed, this style of bully boss sees you as wrong, bad, or incompetent. Any mistakes of yours are always viewed as major, no matter how small.
- Once this occurs, the blind self-righteous bully boss holds a grudge forever and feels justified in whatever they do to undermine you or make your job impossible.
Here is how this played out at the community college where I was a tenured professor:
Death by Numbers:
When I was newly hired, my division chair wanted me to add more classes to the department and submit the paperwork to renumber the rest immediately for consistency without making changes to content at that time. I did as she asked, creating some new classes to expand the skills and levels we offered, and changing the numbers on the rest of the classes.
After one year, this division chair retired and we got a new one, I’ll call Rowena. When she realized I had simply changed the numbers on some of the classes she instantly took against me and decided I was incompetent. It didn’t matter to her that I was only doing what the previous division chair directly instructed me to do.
Rowena could have chosen to accept the wishes of the previous chair at that time, and asked me now to review the curriculum for the older classes and make more substantive changes. Instead, she did everything she could to make me look bad and to get me fired, including telling blatant lies against me to the VP of instruction, and concocting anonymous accusations against me during my next evaluation. This continued until she retired and we got a new bully boss of a different kind.
How can you protect yourself?
It is very difficult to navigate this kind of bully, because their animus is so toxic, complete, and pervasive. I don’t believe it is possible to get back in the good graces of someone like this once you fall out of favor. All this took a deep emotional toll on me. However, once I realized how vigilant I needed to be, I was able at times to counter or head her off. Two techniques worked to some extent:
- Document everything–I saved copies of every communication and was scrupulous in putting everything in writing. Once in a meeting with Rowena, and the VP of Instruction, Rowena told the VP that I had hired adjuncts without getting her approval. I was able to pull out my carefully filed memo, with her handwritten note of approval right on it. It stopped that complaint, but Rowena hated me even more for showing her up. And the VP said nothing to her about it.
- Just say no–When Rowena tried to give me an unsatisfactory evaluation, despite all the evidence to the contrary from students and adjuncts I supervised, and to make my continued employment contingent directly on pleasing her and getting her to agree I had “improved”, I simply refused to sign off on the evaluation. She was enraged and incredulous. But, my courageous refusal to let her bully me into signing ultimately led to me receiving the satisfactory evaluation I had deserved all along. It took 12 months for an evaluation instead of 3, but nothing negative stayed in my personnel file.
I’m grateful I’m not at that college anymore, for many reasons, and I am glad I can use my hard-won understanding to help others.
If you have to work with or for this kind of blind self righteous bully, please know you are not alone, you deserve support, and you can take steps to stand up for yourself!