Over-Demanding or Bullying – a short case study

This brief post came about following a phone call I received today. As ever questions posed are to be answered.

Alan works for a company with just over two hundred employees. He believes he is being harassed daily by his boss and is distressed about his failure to respond. He told me that in the past few months she has begun to demand “more and more from me and that everything must be perfect – it is beyond what is humanly possible”. The quality of his work has suffered and now, more importantly, it is impacting on his health and wellbeing.

Alan is shocked and surprised by his inability to confront his manager. Normally, he is a confident man and one often described as self assured, though his self-esteem is taking a hit. He thinks the hierarchical relationships at work are completely disempowering and wants to know whether this is the norm.

The simple answer I gave him is, yes, completely normal. There will be immediate empathy and understanding from the many that have been in similar positions.

To give a fuller answer, of course, it is necessary to delve deeper into the situation. Perhaps we would need to explore why managers behave the way they do. What are the pressures they are under that make them over-demanding and abrasive? What pushed them to become the boss from hell, the bully?

The Archetypal Bully – Meryl Streep in
The Devil Wears Prada

I have never met a person who goes into management in order to cause damage and upset to others. Is this abuse just another example of the unavoidable corruption of power?

Also up for analysis is the role of the victim. Why does this person not stand up for themselves? Why does the group not stand together and say no. Does their organisationally inferior position forbid this kind of intervention? Does the individual collude with abrasive practices by failing to act appropriately?

Whatever the answers to these questions might be, what I have found, time and again, is that the relationships between the individuals involved have never been properly developed. The real people hide behind their roles; boss, manager, superior or team leader are some, but also are their subordinates, juniors, managed or direct reports.

The Equality Edge programme of “Working with Difference” helps organisations invest to ensure maximum performance, output and productivity from their people whilst also giving them the ability to cope with challenging behaviours and abrasive techniques. It promotes authenticity in the workplace, where real relationships flourish.

I’m sure Alan and his manager will benefit too.


About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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8 Responses to Over-Demanding or Bullying – a short case study

  1. As a therapist with many years experience of working with clients referred by Employee Assistance programmes I recognise the dynamics you describe here as all too common. I’d suspect Alan’s boss is stressed herself, and likely passing the strain down the line. You pose the question -” Why don’t people just stand up for themselves?” Sometimes it’s because they lack the tools – a few basic insights and interventions developed in therapy can often shift the dynamic – perhaps Alan might benefit from some counselling with a therapist who specialises in work related stress issues. Learning how to structure language and use assertive rather than aggressive communication techniques could empower him.

    His boss may well be struggling with stress – when she crosses the line and becomes abusive there should be ‘respect and dignity at work’ policies to measure her behaviours against: with a log of incidents and strong evidence to support a complaint then the issue can become more formal and the support and or re-training she needs instigated. All too often, witnesses will stand by and say nothing or worse – say they will support a complaint and then back out when questioned, leaving the complainant isolated and more vulnerable. Much like the school playground – the bully gets away with it because others are frightened of becoming the victim themselves – collusion is part of group cohesion and it takes real strength of character to stand on principle. And, in fairness, many people also feel constrained by the fear of losing their job to make a stand.

    It’s useful to note that few people get trained in being a manager – usually its a progression from another role and the skills of leadership and self-awareness that make a good manager may need to be learned through coaching or mentoring rather than acquired through trial and error approach, or via some magical form of organisational osmosis.

    No amount of money makes a horrible job bearable – and when people ignore the symptoms of stress that arise from these situations, then health is likely to suffer significantly until ultimately a breakdown can result. My advice to people like Alan – get some counselling from a specialist in the field of work related stress: explore the situation from the outside, develop the strategies to approach it differently. Don’t put up and shut up.

    Alex Drummond http://www.talkmebetter.com

    • equalityedge says:


      Of course you are correct in all you write and have been more thorough in describing the situation Alan found himself in. When your self-esteem is low and damaged it is very hard to stand up for yourself against a superior. I never meant to suggest that it was an easy process.

      I try not to use the language of bully/victim as too often all parties are victims of the oppressive situation they find themselves in. Today’s workplace is regularly like a pressure cooker waiting to go off and what flips is the manager/boss, who is under the most pressure. Their abrasive conduct is their attempt at release.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Hi – agree on both counts: my use of bully/victim was of course referencing the analogy of the school playground where I’d say similarly the language may be unhelpful. I’d commend your piece and join you in communicating a message to your readers that it is very hard sometimes for people to feel sufficiently empowered to challenge a manager (and note the semantic here – I tend to avoid use of ‘superior’ and ‘boss’ and keep to manager/line-manager for similar reasons). The important thing for people to recognise is that these dynamics can potentially happen to anyone at some point, and that when they do (and particularly when self esteem starts getting eroded) it’s worth seeking support to find a way out sooner rather than later.

        I’d add that organisations have a responsibility too – not only to manage the workplace and mitigate unhealthy work environments, but to recognise that happy workers are more productive and more creative: organisational leaders might consider then how a failure to support and develop managers in leadership and self awareness skills might be costing their bottom line and potentially result in valuable and talented staff leaving.


  2. Michael/Alex – some interesting points. You mention low self esteem on the part of the victim. I would suggest (as an ex-“bully” myself – many years ago, I hasten to add) that the perpetrator is more than likely to be suffering from low self esteem herself.
    Given, however, that she has “assigned” authority, she can rely on her job title/assigned status to make life difficult for Alan & get away with it..

    Alex – I agree that assertive approaches can be very powerful. Expression of feelings and needs in particular can achieve great breakthroughs. With the right handling, there is every possibility that Alan could transform the relationship he has with his (currently) abrasive boss and improve things significantlyor both of them.

    It takes courage. And, of course the word courage comes from the Latin word for heart (cor). A firm yet open hearted approach is called for.

  3. GabrielleMac says:

    Reblogged this on The Comparison and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  4. Pingback: Abrasive Tones in the Workplace | The Comparison

  5. Jerson F. Tuang says:

    Can some body help me give an activity or situation about demanding as a form of bullying?

    • equalityedge says:

      Hi Jerson
      Please can you contact me with details of what you are looking for. Perhaps I am able to assist you, as a specialist in anti-bullying practices.
      07930 473396

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