Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Abusive Boss

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

I had a manager who was very belligerent. He would brush off physical aggression as “just playing” and verbal aggression as “just joking.” I found myself getting either physically injured or mentally trashed in every confrontation. I told him that I found his actions unnecessary, rude, and hurtful. He just came back with “just playing,” “just joking,” “it was no big deal,” “just having some fun,” “baaahrrrely touched you,” etc. I felt it was always a crucial conversation or confrontation, but he didn’t and so he felt no need to stop.

I did go to HR, but when HR asked him if he did these things he just said things like, “That guy’s a whiner,” “I wouldn’t hurt a flea,” and, “I did nothing abusive”—without ever giving a yes or no answer to their questions. Consequently, the person in HR erroneously assumed his answers meant “no,” and he made no effort to correct the wrong assumptions. I had heard HR tended to side with management whenever there was doubt, but in this case it looks like they didn’t even want to remove the doubt. This manager’s last words to me before I transferred to another area were “I’LL FIX YOU!!” as he pointed his finger at me.

I’d appreciate any advice or suggestions you can give me because other than just avoiding the guy, I still don’t know what else to do.


A Dear Abused,

Let’s assume that you’ve done your best to talk with the manager, it hasn’t yielded much, and you still want to take it to HR. Now what?

This problem, if not handled well, ends up falling into the “he said, she said” category. When this occurs, it’s hard to know who to believe. The abusive pattern won’t go away until you document the manager’s actual behaviors. You’re going to have to provide hard evidence, much as you would for a court of law. When you suggest that you walk away from interactions either “physically injured” or “mentally trashed” because he is “rude and hurtful,” people listening to you are left wondering, “Yes, but exactly what did he do?” You’re sharing your conclusion, but what were the manager’s actual behaviors?

Without a clear understanding of his words and behaviors (subtle and otherwise), it’s hard to know what’s actually going on. Are you just hypersensitive or is he really an abusive individual? If he is at fault, why haven’t others complained? In these cases, HR is left with an employee saying X and a manager saying Y, and they end up backing the manager. Why? Because they’re looking for a trend (what are others saying?) and they don’t see one. And since the company is betting on the manager in many ways, leaders have to provide support when a manager is accused by one individual and only in a vague way.

The next time you’re abused, write the details of what the manager did and said. Capture the exact words. Describe the delivery. If he put his face within two inches of your face and then thumped you on the forehead, include this. These are the “abusive” behaviors. If he raised his voice or actually threatened you, include this as well.

Imagine that you’re writing a screenplay and actors are going to have to play out the scene, based on what you’ve written. You’ll need the complete script along with the directions for how to deliver it. When you capture the exact words, tone, and feel, then others can see that your manager actually is quite abusive and the HR experts will now have a more scientific starting place. Not only will your story of “abuse” be much more believable, but whoever meets with the abusive manager will be able to give him specific feedback along with advice as to what will be permissible in the future.

To further strengthen your case, look for corroborating witnesses. If others view the abusive interaction, ask them if it felt abusive to them. This will help you get a feel for your degree of sensitivity. If others say that it looked okay to them, then maybe you are the one who needs to rethink the relationship. If they agree (“Are you kidding? That was a horrible way to treat you!”) then ask them for their support. Write down your description of what occurred, give the witnesses a copy and see if they agree with your summary. If so, ask if they’d be willing to discuss the incident with HR. Now you have more than one person supporting your claim.

Learn how to support your conclusions with careful descriptions of the other person’s actual behaviors—whether talking directly to the person in a crucial confrontation or sharing your plight with HR. Stick to the facts—what you saw and heard. Curb your emotional response, drop out your inflammatory language, and simply share your view of what the other person did. In the long run, science always wins out over emotional allegations.

Good luck in your quest for fair treatment,

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