Home » Blog » Podcasts » Confronting a bully boss

Confronting a bully boss

Drew:

Hello and welcome to In Confidence: Face your workplace. A podcast that seeks to reveal the true blockers of confidence at work, on the job, with a boss, or in their career from real callers. So they can face their workplace and achieve their goals. In most instances, the names, people and workplace information shared have likely been altered to protect the identity of those involved. We’re your hosts. I’m Drew Fortin!

Alyssa:

Alyssa Dver. And we’re so glad you’re here with us today. I want to remind everyone that the comments & suggestions that we make on this particular call are specific to their situation. However, we’re confident that they will be helpful to you if you are dealing with a similar situation. Andrew, we have on the line right now Janet. Are you there with us, Janet?

Alyssa:

Hello.

Alyssa:

Hey, thank you for joining us. I understand that you’re having a bit of a dilemma with some senior managers. Can you give us an idea of what’s going on?

Janet:

Yeah, absolutely. And thanks so much for having me on, I hope that other people find this valuable as well. I can’t be the only one. But basically what we’re dealing with. So a little background, I work at a startup we’re in the Boston area. I have two wonderful co-founders who I work with who are just generally great managers. The CEO is my direct boss, so she’s one of our cofounders. I’ll call her Alison. And then we also have another, co-founder who I’ll call Jessica who runs more of the behind the scenes operations. Basically both of these women are, you know, fantastic managers. I find Allison to generally be a great boss and generally listens to me and my ideas and supports me. And basically what’s happening is that Alison is essentially bullying Jessica publicly.

Janet:

So this will be a situation where, you know, let’s say Alison and I are having a conversation about something. Jessica might walk into the room and offer a suggestion and Alison will shoot her down and basically say, you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is a bad idea. And this is something that happens all the time in front of the entire company, basically. So obviously this is really negative behavior to be coming from the top. We also had someone who I’ll called George for this example. George was someone who was a director level person who worked under Jessica on Jessica’s team. And when he left in his exit interview, he said, you know, Jessica has great ideas. Alison is bullying her in front of everyone. This is totally inappropriate. This is like really bothering everyone on the team at every level. So basically I’m trying to figure out how to kind of mediate the situation.

Alyssa:

Wow.

Drew:

Okay. How large is the company?

Janet:

There’s about 30 of us.

Drew:

Okay.

Janet:

And also a background on, you know, my role is to essentially deal with all things, people, operations. So this is really an HR issue, which falls under me. And just because come to me and said that this was a huge problem for her, that she doesn’t want me to step in. So that’s actually that’s I guess the real problem that I’m trying to get out is what am I supposed to do if I’m seeing this is a problem, but then she’s saying not to do anything. So I don’t know. It’s crazy.

Drew:

Are you a people ops team of one?

Janet:

I sure am.

Alyssa:

All right. Let’s all right. There’s a lot here in [inaudible]. All right now. Well, let’s go back to that. That last comment you made. Jessica asked you not to do anything she literally said to you, “please don’t do anything?” She said don’t get involved? What did she say?

Janet:

So we started doing a monthly lunch, which I think is great. It’s great to catch up with her and her projects. But lately these monthly lunches have essentially turned to her, you know, turned into her opening up about these interpersonal issues of Alison. And I have offered to mediate conversations with them. I’ve offered. I mean, I’d have offered basically the same advice that I would give anyone who comes to me with a confidential problem, which is, you know, that I’m, I’m happy to help handle it. And she said, you know, no. I mean, that’s the short answer is no, she doesn’t want me to get involved. So …

Alyssa:

Do you think she’s doing anything herself about it?

Janet:

I think that she thinks she is, but obviously nothing’s changing.

Drew:

Sure. And how long has this been happening? Like did it, was, has it always been this way or it some specific point things changed in their relationship?

Janet:

I think, I think this has always happened on and off and it seems to ebb and flow and it seems to be swelling right now.

Alyssa:

What’s your best guess? I know this is really a big, I’m tossing you a big ball, but I’m just curious your, you have a people ops background. What do you think is causing it? What’s really at the heart of why is Alison being so aggressive?

Janet:

I think it’s just the, well, actually I’ll back up and say, I have a people ops background in the sense that like many folks in startups I’ve been moved up very quickly and I know a lot, and I’m very good at my job, but I certainly don’t have the level of conflict resolution training that I think would be helpful in this type of situation. So I’m basically just a person. I don’t feel like an expert, but…

Drew:

“I Was given this job…”

Alyssa:

You know, good for you for being you. That’s great that you are self aware and you’re not. Yeah, no, no. Don’t apologize for anything. And being human is the greatest thing, so good for you. Okay.

Janet:

Thank you. So my, but yes, what I would say is causing the issue is stress. And I think that it’s easy for Alison to blame Jessica for, you know, any product issues or any, you know, miscommunications that are coming from the more operation side, because she’s really the face of that whole, you know, half of the company. So it’s just, I mean, it’s just drastic. Startups are hard. So she’s looking for someone to blame and she’s not able to articulate her feelings, stress in a way that’s healthy on stress in a way that’s healthy.

Drew:

And obviously it startups, everyone’s always like hair on fire, everything’s moving, but what’s causing the stress right now. What are the issues that are, is there something hindering business performance or..?

Janet:

Yeah, basically our sales team, isn’t hitting our unrealistic revenue targets and we’re also fundraising right now. So the investors don’t like that. And I think the investors are taking away a lot taking, right. I think the investors are taking away a lot of Allison’s power. You know, because they’re able to hold your feet to the fire or whatever that expression is..

Drew:

Ultimately that’s who she reports to. Right. If she’s the CEO.

Janet:

Yeah, exactly.

Alyssa:

That’s a tough situation. You know, I’m laughing. Cause we started, I don’t know if he was on the call or before the call, we talked about dogs, right? We are all three of us are dog people. And I know when I’m really stressed out and my dog, does something that’s just not acceptable, pees on the rug or whatever. Like I lose it, I just lose it. And I know it’s my trigger signal. And I’m like, okay, the one person, person, the one thing that I’m not going to get yelled at back, you know, my dog is a person too. I get a lot of confidence from my dog and nobody can tell me otherwise. But seriously, like, you know, like he’s an easy target, cause you’re not gonna yell back at me. Right. So like dammit, right. Like I’ll just lose it. And I think maybe there’s some of that dynamic, there was always that dynamic with co founders because they feel so comfortable together. They have that ability to take it out on each other. But at the same time, what’s more concerning to me is not so much that she’s doing it, but she’s doing it so publicly. Right. And that I that’s, Drew don’t do that to me. That’s something that’s not good. There’s a real problem.

Drew:

Right. Especially even if there’s a subconscious motive about not placing blame, but trying to set something up. Right, right. That, yeah, that cannot feel good. No. Especially for Jessica and your relationship, how long have you known Jessica?

Janet:

Yeah. I’ve known both of them for about two years that I’ve been with the company. Yeah.

Drew:

Do you have as good a relationship with both? Or?

Alyssa:

I would say, I mean my closest relationship is with Alison, because she’s really the one I’m reporting to and the one I, I sort of talked to you all day. But I mean, I have a great relationship with both of them individually.

Drew:

Interesting. And you said that, you know, Jessica obviously is aware that you’re aware because she said don’t say anything is, is Alison?

Janet:

No, I would be surprised if Alison realized there was a problem.

Drew:

Hmm. Okay.

Alyssa:

Okay. So that’s interesting. So, so she’s doing these public things. You’re aware of them. Jessica is aware of them. You think everybody else, it sounds like everyone else is aware of them. George certainly was aware of it, but Allison’s not aware of it.

Janet:

One thing I have heard, so they both come from a different culture, I’ll say where it’s expected to be very blunt, which I don’t think is a bad thing. And it’s actually something I really value about the sort of overall communication style of our company. So what I have heard from Alison is basically like, Oh, it’s okay. We’re both from, you know, we’re both XYZ culture. It’s okay to talk to each other like this. So if she ever is, self-aware, it’s sort of excuse as like, Oh, it’s just a thing from the place that we’re from.

Drew:

I don’t have to be self aware. That’s totally fine. Let’s just chop that one.

Alyssa:

Yea I’m from Mars. Screw you right now. I got it. Uso I have one more question for you, Janet. Uso in light of what you just said, do you think Allison’s upset about it? You think it’s bothering her or is she just like, yeah. It’s culture is what it is. What’s really the truth.

Janet:

So when, so sorry, Allison’s the bully and Jessica…

Alyssa:

I’m sorry. Jessica is Jessica. Jessica said to you, she knows it’s happening. Do you, do you think, is your best read on her that she’s upset about it or she indifferent about it?

Janet:

Oh yes. She is upset about it. And has I’ve actually seen her cry about it, which she’s definitely someone who wouldn’t, you know, never let anyone see her cry, which I think this is normal for someone in my position that people cry in front of me all the time. Which I, I definitely, you know, I’m open to, but yeah, she was really hurt by this. This is really weighing on her a lot. And she has mentioned that. I just remember that actually that a few months ago when we met, she said, she’s actually been thinking about leaving her own company, which would be really tragic.

Drew:

Wow. Have you are you not speaking to Al like, would you have spoken to Alison if Jessica hadn’t said don’t speak to her?

Janet:

That’s a good question. I don’t know if I, if I wonder if I’m too afraid of setting off this type of behavior directed towards me. Which feels selfish to say, but it seems scary to, to bring up.

Alyssa:

All right. So let’s kind of start going into coaching mode. Cause I can’t wait. Sorry. I got, I got to say this because here’s the thing you have, you have the, the privilege, it really is a privilege based on where you sit and your relationships with them to really help them through this. Because in your own words, it would be tragic if it didn’t get resolved. So I think what, Drew, I think we need to help her be a coach, to both of them, both of these bosses, because I think they really both need help. They’re one of them screaming, I need help and I’m going to blame my cofounder. And the other one is not saying anything and then crying in your office and those are signs they need help. And you’re probably the only person sounds like in the company who can kind of rise to that occasion.

Alyssa:

But obviously you need some help yourself because it’s new. So the good news is this is not that hard. The bad news is it can be a little scary because it’s new. And, and so I’m going to do a couple of ’em. I’m gonna throw some suggestions, just going to do it. And I almost liked us to do a roleplay at the end if that’s okay. You game?

Janet:

Absolutely.

Alyssa:

Okay. So let’s let’s, let’s talk about the easier one, I think right now with Jessica, because Jessica is getting the brunt of this. And so what would you, if you were in Jessica’s shoes it’s scary. It’s intimidating. It’s not fun. It’s she probably comes to work, hoping that she doesn’t see your cofounder. There’s all that stuff going on. What are some of the things you could tell Jessica, in terms of, you need to go talk to Alison, you need to tell Alison how you’re feeling. Right. But that’s scary. So how can we do – let’s just think creatively? What are the ways that we can frame that for Jessica? “You Need to tell, you need to have a conversation with Alison, Jessica and you need to tell her the way you’re feeling, because” fill in the blank.

Janet:

So you’re asking me to fill in the blank.

Alyssa:

Yeah. Or Drew! Jump in.

Drew:

Well, I’m going to hear what Janet has to say first. I have plenty of ideas too.

Janet:

Yeah. I would say, yeah, I would say that the, because there’s many becauses, but let’s just take it from a business standpoint. You need to talk to you, Alison, because without you, our product would cease to function and you have the explicit knowledge that will continue to allow us to I guess allow us to function smoothly on the backend so that Alison and, and the rest of the business team can you know, continue to sell the product and, and have a viable product that’s in the field. So yeah, basically you need to talk to Alison because you are the only person who can keep the backend of this company running. And we would fall apart without you, which is true. She couldn’t, she literally couldn’t be replaced. I mean, she, she created this product with her, with her hands. She designed it and she has formed all of our supply chain relationships and on the phone with our contract manufacturers, 24/7. So this is something that no one else could do.

Alyssa:

To make it more personal now because Alison can I’m sorry. Jessica could say, so what? It’s not worth it to me. Make it more personal. Tell me- I’m Jessica. All right. And, and you just told me if I leave the company’s gonna fall apart. And I say to you, you know what, Janet, I’m sorry, but you know what? It’s not worth it to me. This is too painful. I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll create something else. I just can’t. I can’t come in every day and deal with this. So now, where do you go with it? Make it personal.

Janet:

I will say that her team really values her as a manager and that I really value her. And, and I mean, I think she’s a genius. So I guess for me, it would really hurt me to not be able to work with her anymore. She’s one of the reasons I wanted to start working with these people on the first day.

Drew:

You said to me, I mean, think more about yourself. What is your role at the company, right. People operations, or are you also trying to hire people at the same time?

Janet:

Yeah.

Drew:

Yeah. And, and so culture is a big thing. And if this is being witnessed in front of other people, not only is this bad for the culture, but who’s responsible ultimately for the, for getting the right people on board, making sure the culture is maintained as kind of the czar of the culture. It’s probably you, Janet. And so I wonder if there’s an opportunity for you to say, Hey, I CA I may not. I, I honestly don’t think you’re in a position to fix their relationship as much as it’s, it’s kinda like, Hey, you have some stuff to work out. You can work that out behind closed doors, but when you’re on the floor and you’re at this company, you’re acting like you’re best friends. Because that’s, what’s needed for the culture here.

Drew:

And that’s going to impact me and my job in a big way, if you can’t do that. And that impacts everyone else, that also just puts them on notice that they do need to figure their stuff out together. And it sounds like I, the advice that Alyssa’s giving you right now, because I think that’s in, in a way you have to give Janet the, a bit of the push and confidence to say, if you’re not going to speak, like you need to go speak to Alison, cause this is what’s going to happen. And this is impacting me as well. Right. And if you don’t, I’m going to bring you both together and say, you both need to work this out.

Janet:

Right.

Drew:

I don’t. I think that you’re, you are in a position where you can do that because of your role. And if you make it personal, you know, people say, Oh, it’s business. It’s not personal. It is personal. And for you personally, you’re like, this is my job. And I’m trying to make this work. And the added nuance here is my job is actually this. Right. And you are both crapping on the culture here. All right. Like, I mean, I think there’s, there is some semblance for you to make it personal on you, so you don’t even have to address or try to, you know, let them know that you’re trying to get involved in their business. Right. Does that, I don’t know. Alyssa, if you.

Alyssa:

Yeah.

Alyssa:

I know that I, that definitely feels very true for sure.

Alyssa:

All right. So let’s flip the switch and go to the other, the Alison cause that one’s a little, I think a little bit scarier, but I think the same rules apply here because it sounds like Alison is not very self aware. And when people are not self aware you need data and facts, but you also need to make it real for them. So I am now Alison play with me on this. And you’re looking at me and you’re saying what, and there’s no wrong answer here.

Janet:

I guess it’s well, it’s in my nature to more appeal to the emotional side, which I, I don’t know if it’s as effective for someone like Allison, but I guess let’s just say it is. So I would say that this not only is hurting Jessica, but really hurting and obviously other people in the company such as George, you know, who recently left. But this was really hurting me and it really is ruining our culture. I mean, culture comes from the top and if they’re exhibiting this terrible behavior you know, no one is no one’s gonna want to work with them and it was going to take them seriously. You know, why would you be open to feedback from someone who is bullying someone else?

Alyssa:

Yeah, exactly. And I, I liked the way you started that and I don’t want you to lose that, that thread it’s my job. But more importantly, it’s impacting me.

Janet:

Yeah.

Alyssa:

Because here’s the secret and it is not such a secret when I say it. But Alison is very scared. She’s scared of failing. She’s being threatened maybe for some other reasons that we’ll never know, but she’s acting very aggressively for reasons that are all fear-based, she’s rolling it to Jessica because Jessica has taken it. So you got to do two things. You got to give Jessica some confidence to say to Alison, I’m not going to take it. And you got to deal with this and you got to tell Alison, at the same time, you got to stop dishing it. And this is because you’re not only hurting Alison, but you’re hurting all of us and you gotta make it about that as opposed to Alison you’re acting obnoxiously. Because as soon as you start saying that you just fanning the fire, right? You don’t want to go to Alison say, you’re acting like a crazy person, stop it. Or you’re hurting Jessica because that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna move her. What’s going to move her is the company that she built is hurting. And she’s the cause.

Drew:

Right. And, and perhaps even having that conversation with Alison and saying, “Hey, this may not be actually what you think is happening, but my perception is this.” that could probably help you say it might, it might just be me, but I’m seeing this happening. And I’ve gotten some feedback from other folks in the company that they’re witnessing this too and showed up in this exit interview. Like, we need really need to address this. Right. And and you can maybe deliver the objectivity with objectivity, be objective about it. I collect the data. The data is saying, we have a problem. Let’s let’s work on it.

Alyssa:

Yeah. And, and, and again, don’t be afraid to say, and it’s impacting me. It’s really, really hard. I think sometimes for people to recognize how their behaviors they’re so destructive to other people, then we don’t know it. You know, it’s, it’s believed behavior, but we don’t even know we’re doing it. Right. And she’s not bullying you. She’s bullying. Alison. I mean, Jessica getting all the names except forgive me, Allison’s bullying Jessica. She may even know that she’s doing that, but she doesn’t know that that bullying is affecting everybody else, including you. Right? Including George, including everyone else. So the data’s great. Make it personal too. And I think you’ll get to her heart. I hope you get to her heart.

Drew:

Yeah. And then another thing, it’s not that I don’t want it to come off as a threat, but I’ve found this helpful a great book is Susan Scott’s fierce careers conversations. And you know, one of the things I always get, she has a cool template. If you ever want to like, have hard conversations with somebody. But one of the things I always took away from that is delivering, you know, this is what I think is happening and this is how, this is how I see it. And what I fear is at stake is this. And if you can make that, what does that stake personal? So in your case, I will gladly accepted this people operations role. It may not be something that I’ve done forever. I really am passionate about it. And what could be at stake is me not being set up for success. And ultimately that’s going to lead to us failing, me failing, me having to leave. Like, so how can we address that? Right. and when you make it personal like that, like, can I rely on you to help help us? I think you’ll be surprised what you get. Yeah.

Janet:

Cool.

Alyssa:

Yeah. And I, you know, whether you use that template or you just map out your conversation of each, I would encourage you to do that to you so that when you’re in the room, you can have a game plan. You know? It just helps in all confidence measures. When you walk in, you’re prepared, you’ve got your talking points, you know, what your outcomes are, you know what you’re going to say, you cover it all you, you kind of, right.

Drew:

And especially because of your role, you have, you kind of have a, a right to get involved a little bit cause it’s impacting the company.

Alyssa:

Right. Right. Wow. All right. Well, we threw a whole bunch of stuff at you, ideas and thoughts and ideas. And I’m wondering, Drew you have any other questions or suggestions for Janet?

Drew:

I think we threw a lot at you. So, I mean, yeah. I’d be curious to understand, like if there’s, you know, something that comes to mind after what we talked to, like what, what do you think you’re going to take away from this?

Janet:

Yeah. The two main things I’m going to take away from this one is just remembering that I, I can rise to the occasion. I am a leader at my company. I do drive-

Drew:

Yes you are.

Janet:

Thank you. I do drive a great culture. You know, certainly imposter syndrome and things like that are very common. You know, especially in startups, especially with women, you know, around my age. So just remembering that I can solve this problem is very helpful. So thank you for that. And then the other thing I will do is I will try this template you mentioned. I tend to be a better written than verbal communicator. So then where I can have written, you know, written down and rehearsed, going into a conversation, that’s always going to make me feel feel better and, and that’s worked for me in, in similar situations before. So I will I’ll, I’ll look for that and try that. And I feel really set up for success. So thank you so much.

Alyssa:

Oh gosh. Our pleasure. Thank you for calling in. That was awesome. I appreciate it. And good luck. I I have confidence in myself that you’re gonna make a big difference there. So go for it.

Janet:

Yeah. Thank you both. I hope you have a great weekend.

Alyssa:

Thanks, you too!

Drew:

Bye!

Janet:

Alright, bye!

Alyssa:

Tough situations. Love them, but at the same time, boy, are they sometimes hard to hear because, you know?

Drew:

I know, but I mean, at least Janet isn’t like, how am I going to deal with this? She has the drive to do it, which is awesome.

Alyssa:

Yeah. They’re very lucky to have her. And at the same time, I think if it gets resolved, they’re onto good stuff. Yay!

Maverick

Drew is the SVP of sales and marketing at PI.

View all articles
Copy link