It might help to know you are not alone. According to a recent poll, over one third of all employees cite high stress related to a challenging boss who regularly yells at team members or behaves aggressively in some way.
Here are 5 keys to help you get your sanity back:
1. Protect Yourself Emotionally
The hardest thing about “being yelled at” is wondering what it means about who we are. “If they are THAT mad at me, does it mean they think I’m horrible?” This line of thinking leads to embarrassment and humiliation, which actually hurts worse than the aggression itself. Think about it- if you knew the person completely respected and adored you, would the yelling be as uncomfortable?
Certain personality types like to “let off steam” when something irritates them. For them it is an emotional release, a way to be heard, and once they’ve said (or yelled) whatever they have to say, the anger is gone – it surges through them and is released. Some might even say this is a healthier way to deal with anger than not bringing up issues at all and harboring grudges. The important thing to understand is that while this person may be louder than anyone else, they don’t actually feel much different on the inside, so in reality they aren’t any angrier at you than the lady who gave you a “look” in the coffee shop when you took an extra sugar packet. Don’t make the mistake of judging the level of anger by the volume of its expression.
2. Stand Your Ground
It’s natural to want to step back, cower, or look away when you are being yelled at, but this reaction often adds fuel to the fire. Aggressive people are typically looking to resolve an issue, have a conversation, engage. If you retreat, it frustrates them even more. One thing you can do is stand still and create an imaginary bubble around yourself. Think of your bubble as your safe place and look calmly and directly into the person’s eyes. Remind yourself in that moment that the anger is not about you, even if you are the trigger or the target.
3. Speak Up
Most people who freely express anger have no desire to be intimidating or hurt people with their intensity. The intention is to have direct conversation about something that is happening right now. So they really appreciate people who will stand up to them, disagree with them, and fearlessly stay with the conversation. Often they will hire people who are “strong enough” to argue with them because they feel like they need that to give them perspective and help them make good decisions.
You don’t want to be antagonistic – you just want your bubble to protect you enough so you don’t get flustered and freeze, and instead keep your head clear and say whatever it is that needs to be said. If you talk in a calm voice, but you stay engaged, chances are your boss will calm down and meet your tone.
4. Set Boundaries
Just because you understand where the angry outbursts come from doesn’t mean you have to tolerate them. You can decide what your rules are for interaction. When the boss comes yelling, you can say with complete calm and respect, “you are yelling right now and it’s not okay with me to have a conversation this way. I understand how important this is to talk about and am happy to go over this, but only if we can speak calmly.” Or, you can say, “When you yell in my vicinity, I will need to leave the room, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to talking with you.”
The key to setting boundaries effectively is not to be self-righteous about it. You need to stay neutral and non-judgmental in your tone. If you have even a slight edge to your tone that implies that you believe they are immature or bad for yelling, they will likely get defensive and this strategy will backfire. You may want to practice with someone you trust to make sure your tone doesn’t get the best of you.
5. Work to Build the Relationship
It’s natural to judge the yelling and go into avoidance mode, but once you have practiced protecting yourself and standing your ground enough to handle more contact, you want to do the work to get to know your boss. If you have a relationship, you can much more easily joke about the issues when they come up. Or, you can give feedback, such as, “When you yell at me it’s difficult for me to think. I’d be able to brainstorm with you so much easier if I weren’t afraid of your response.” You can also give feedback on how they come across in meetings. “I think Laurie had something she wanted to say but she was afraid that you wouldn’t want to hear it – you have a big presence and whether you realize it or not, that can be intimidating.”
Usually people who are aggressive on the outside feel quite vulnerable on the inside, and when you do the work to get to know who they are, they feel comfortable enough to let down their guard and connect with you more authentically.
As a very last resort, remember, you don’t have to stay miserable in a job if it isn’t going to work out. It’s perfectly okay to leave because your relationship with your boss makes work miserable. Most people who leave jobs are really leaving their boss – work relationships between different styles can be hard.
But if you want to try to make it work first, try the steps above, and feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss your specific situation in more detail.