Don’t Let a Bully Boss Affect Your Mental Health

How can I use emotional intelligence or Mindsight to manage a bully boss?

That’s what a Brainpower webinar participant asked me and my friend and colleague Dan Siegel during a recent webcast. I’d like to expand on the brief response I gave during the webinar.

First, let’s be clear about definitions. The Workplace Bullying Institute uses this description in their work:

“Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

Obviously, someone who fits this definition can occupy any position in an organization. When the boss is a bully, their position enhances the power of their abuse. Bullying can be part of a complex set of dynamics that are more than can be covered in a brief article. However, the four components of emotional intelligence provide useful perspective on and tools for dealing with a bully.

The first component is self-awareness. What do you feel when your boss humiliates you or intimidates you? Immediately, you might feel angry or afraid. Your heart races, your vision narrows, and you find yourself in the grip of what I call an “amygdala hijack.”

During a hijack, the part of the brain that controls our emotional reactions takes charge. It overrides the calmer, thinking part of our brain. The amygdala triggers a Flight, Fight, Freeze, or Faint response. Or saying something you later regret. With emotional intelligence, we can recognize that hijack and choose to cool down. As Dan Siegel and his colleagues at UCLA say, “Name it to Tame it.” Just acknowledging we’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack starts the cooling process.

The second component is self-management. Without emotional intelligence, the amygdala is in control and you’re off to flee, fight, freeze, or faint. This is the time for self-management tools such as relaxation or meditation. You can simply step away from the difficult situation and take deep breaths. Practiced regularly, these techniques are more easily accessed in the moment. PsychologistJohn Gottman advises couples having arguments to take a 20-minute time out before continuing the conversation. Taking a break isn’t always possible in the midst of a high-pressure work environment. And, in work cultures where there are constant threats, a hijack can last for days or weeks.

That brings me to the third component, social awareness. The core skill in social awareness is empathy, sensing what others are thinking and feeling without them telling us in words. Are you the only one being bullied by your boss? Or do you pick up signals that your coworkers are having similar experiences? My guess is you’re not alone. If so, others are probably having emotional hijacks and feeling the constant strain. Is anyone in the office less impacted by bullying? Pay attention to them. What can you learn from them about keeping your cool?

Bullying can feel normal if it happens all the time. Using your self-awareness and empathy, you can remind your coworkers that bullying is not normal or acceptable. Tania Singer and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have developed tools for developing empathy and compassion.

What About the Boss?

Your job isn’t to analyze or fix your boss. And, there are many strategies foraddressing a bully boss beyond the ones I mention in this article. However, emotional intelligence gives us insight and tools for how to interact with a bully boss. Empathy can help you understand what they are feeling and what triggers them.

Relationship management is the fourth component of emotional intelligence. Dan Siegel’s work with Mindsight and the field of interpersonal neurobiology has helped us understand more about the “social brain.” Our brains make unconscious, automatic connections with the brains of the people around us. Mirror neurons are one mechanism for that connection. Simply put, mirror neurons fire in our brains in response to the behavior of people around us, including their facial expressions. They produce emotional contagion, the subject of one of my recent posts. With emotional contagion, the most powerful person in a situation is the “sender” of emotions. The rest of us in that moment are receivers, picking up on the emotions of that powerful person. One way bullies impact us is to project feelings that we pick up through our mirror neurons.

Sigal Barsade, a researcher at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in studying emotional contagion and its impact in organizations. Dr. Barsade provided wise advice about how to fend off the emotions of a toxic person. Among other tactics, she suggests avoiding the gaze of negative people to decrease the chance of catching their emotions.

Perspective

Beyond its specific tools, emotional intelligence provides us with a perspective on ourselves and others. We can be aware of our feelings, manage them, understand other people, and manage our relationships with others. That mindset sets us on the path to skillfully handling all of our relationships, even with a bully boss.