How to Handle a Boss Who Yells

Some advice on coping with the emotional manager.

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A reader writes:

I'm hoping you can help a friend of mine who is stuck in a tough situation. After a long job search, my friend has found his dream job--it's what he wants to do, in the field he wants to do it in, it pays the salary he wants to make, and he feels like he's making a positive difference in the world. But his manager only has one way of talking: SCREAMING. Peppered with curse words, no less. At first, my friend just thought this person had high standards, or was trying to "break in the new guy." But it has been months and it's not getting any better. Alhough my pal tries to respond to the feedback that is buried somewhere in all the shouting and swearing, none of his efforts to give his boss what he wants have been met with anything but rage. The few times this manager has tried to give my friend a compliment about a job well done, he still somehow ends up angry and yelling! It is so bad that I would not be surprised if this person has some sort of undiagnosed mood disorder and should be on medication. With the economy the way it is, quitting the job is not an option. Is there anything my friend can do to improve his work environment?

Well, first, chronic yelling should be a deal-breaker. It's abusive, it demeans the person being yelled at, and frankly, it diminishes the authority of the yeller because it makes them look out of control. Yelling is the sign of a bad manager--and a jerk.  So yes, the economy is bad, but your friend should at least look around and try to find another job. Sure, it might not pan out, but if he doesn't even try, it definitely won't.

However, here are some survival strategies for whatever period of time someone is stuck with a boss who yells:

  • Don't take it personally. It's not about you. Good managers who know how to use authority appropriately don't need to yell; problems don't get under their skin because they have effective tools at their disposal (such as performance counseling and moving out employees who aren't the right fit). Don't let their problems affect your sense of yourself.
    • If your boss regularly yells at you, it can be helpful to keep in mind that it's highly likely that that his colleagues know he has a problem and have more sympathy for you than you might realize.
      • Consider addressing the problem head-on by talking to your boss about it. Yellers are people with needy egos to protect, so give his ego the padding it needs before you launch into your request. For instance, start off by saying that you really like the job and the work he gives you--and even that you generally like working for him, if you can stomach that--and then say something like: "I really have trouble hearing your feedback when you yell at me. I definitely want constructive criticism, but it's hard for me to take it in when you're yelling."  However, while this can actually have an impact with some bosses and I've heard from people who have done it successfully, be prepared for it not to change much; by definition, we're talking about someone who's a jerk.
        • Escalate it. Look around your workplace--is there a higher-up who seems open to people going outside the chain of command in order to bring problems to her?  Going over your boss's head is always tricky, but if an employee came to me to complain about her boss yelling at her, I'd jump at the chance to address the problem. I'm not the only one. You can also go to HR, of course, depending on your HR department's track record of helping employees in similar situations. Know what you're getting into first though: Is the culture one that seems like it would care about abusive managers?
        • But really, none of the above will change the fact that that a boss who chronically yells is a jerk and will likely always be a jerk. Your best bet is to start looking at other jobs.

          Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.

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