When the Bullying Boss Gets Home

Mindy sits in my office, tears beginning to roll down her face. “I’m just so tired of trying. It’s gotten so that I don’t even say anything anymore. He gets so angry. I’ve tried telling him how I feel, but he just doesn’t get it. I don’t think I can take it anymore.”

 Bob looks straight at Mindy. “I didn’t realize you were this upset about our marriage. I thought things were going well. I love you and our family – I don’t want this to end.”

 I notice that Bob doesn’t reach out to comfort Mindy, doesn’t apologize or acknowledge her suffering. I continue talking with this couple, in my office for their first session of couples counseling. It isn’t their first round of counseling, and they tell me they’ve worked on these issues before with other therapists. I ask them how they approach parenting, in particular disciplining their children.

“Bob has a very short fuse with them,” Mindy says. “He’s a great father, but he’s quick to yell. I feel like I have to balance him out, and I know I’m too easy on them sometimes as a result. I’m not blaming him for that, but I do think he’s too hard on them.”

“I think Mindy’s too easy on them! Our boys don’t always listen like they should, and if I have to yell to get them moving, I’ll yell. They know I love them.

“He doesn’t just yell – sometimes he gets sarcastic, and I don’t think they even understand. I can see from their faces it hurts them, but Bob just wants action – he wants the homework done or the chores done. And now!” adds Mindy.

I begin to see a familiar pattern in this family dynamic. Repeated attempts to say, “something’s not right in our relationship,” “you respond with anger,” “I’m sad.” The spouse hearing but not hearing, understanding the words but lacking the capacity to empathize with the partner’s loneliness, frustration, and pain.

I decide to ask Bob about his relationships at work. Bob is a district sales manager for a local telecommunications company. “The job’s okay. I have five people who report to me, and I have to stay on them all the time. They’re a little scared of me,” he says as he laughs.

“Why are they scared of you?” I ask him. “That’s how I make sure they stay on top of things – the ‘fear of God’, you know,” he answers.

My suspicions are confirmed by Bob’s response. I ask the couple if I can share with them a few of my observations, and they both nod. I explain that Bob seems to have a low level of empathy – his ability to understand and feel the feelings of others is underdeveloped, resulting in a feeling of disconnection with his wife, his employees, and likely his children. I ask about his family upbringing, and sure enough, there are indicators that Bob did not receive much empathy growing up. Feelings were not typically acknowledged or discussed, and great emphasis was placed on doing things and performing well at school.

Of course, there are several issues in the marriage that need to be resolved in order for this couple to stay together and have a healthy, happy relationship, but attending to the issue of empathy is probably chief among them. I explain to Mindy and Bob my work with workplace bullying, and the connection between this issue and what I see happening in their relationship, and how we might go about addressing it.

I have come across this kind of situation several times in my experience as a marriage and family therapist. As I also work as an executive coach specializing in helping abrasive leaders tame their bullying tendencies, I find it fascinating to see how the phenomenon plays out at home. Workplace bullying, which is becoming a hot topic these days, is gaining the attention of HR professionals, consultants, and even lawmakers. Gradually, companies are beginning to see the importance of addressing this issue in the workplace, as it leads to a host of costly problems, such as higher turnover, increased absenteeism, and lower motivation and productivity.

Many writers on the subject of workplace bullying posit that the behavior is intentional and targets a single individual. Research shows that this is simply not the case.1 Abrasive leaders are disrespectful to most if not all of their coworkers – but not to those above them in the organizational hierarchy. It appears that for most abrasive leaders, it is the threat of appearing incompetent to those above them that drives them to treat those below them with harshness and disrespect. Coaching with these individuals reveals a distinct lack of empathy, a lack of what author Dr. Laura Crawshaw calls, “social sonar.” Dr. Crawshaw, in her research on abrasive leaders, writes that abrasive leaders must learn to practice empathy, to learn how their actions impact the feelings of those around them in order to be more effective and successful in their jobs.

Spouses that lack in empathy also benefit from learning to practice this skill. Empathy is a skill, something we learn through modeling and feedback. The learning is reinforced when relationships improve through the increased responsiveness and connection that empathy inevitably creates. In working with couples, I have found that by the time they seek counseling, the lack of empathy may have created a distance that is too deep and wide to traverse. But it is worth the try to teach the skill, as it will benefit every relationship in that person’s life, whether at work or at home.

1 Crawshaw, L. Coaching Abrasive Leaders: Using Action Research to Reduce Suffering and Increase Productivity in Organizations. The International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2010: 29, 8(1), p. 58-77.

Executive Confidante                                                                                        651-356-5080 / kalli@execconf.com