How To Tell If Your Boss Is a Bully or Just Tough

by Sharlyn Lauby on April 29, 2012

Bullying is an important topic. There’s a lot of attention being focused on the subject of bullying these days. Especially in schools and the workplace. For that, I say “It’s about time.” Hopefully we will be able to do something to stop this destructive behavior.

But I also want to start a dialogue about the definition of bullying. Wikipedia defines it as “aggressive behavior manifested by the use of force or coercion to affect others.” They add that it can include verbal or physical harassment. It can also be directed at a person based upon race, religion, gender, sexuality or ability.

It’s important to have a good understanding of the definition of bullying. Because being tough or even being a jerk isn’t bullying. While sometimes tough bosses are labeled as jerks, there’s a difference. A difference we should all explore.

Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with being tough. I view tough as being objective and holding people accountable. In fact, sometimes I think we could stand a little bit more toughness in the working world.

And, I’m certainly not advocating being a jerk. Acting like a jerk has consequences. But there is a difference between being a jerk and a bully – even if it’s a very fine line.

accountable, boss, bully, workplace, jerks, work, harassment, bullying

In the book “Stop Bullying at Work” written by Teresa Daniel, the author cites research asking HR pros to explain the difference between being a tough boss and a bully. The book drew a distinction between what might be perceived as actions that were organization-focused as opposed to personally-focused. Meaning a bully’s actions are driven by self-interest and personal gain versus the tough boss whose actions are focused on the best interest of the organization.

This is an important conversation because we don’t want to restrict tough bosses because someone cries bully. And we can’t ignore claims of bullying just because the boss says they’re giving “tough love”. We need to be able to make objective evaluations and act accordingly.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Is it possible to easily identify the difference between the person who is tough and a bully? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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