How to survive a bully supervisor when you’re a nice person


I work for a supervisor who loves to take me apart. Last week, she invited me into her office and spent 30 minutes telling me everything I did wrong. When she finally wound down, I felt shattered and said, “Thanks, I need to get back to work.”

Once at my desk, I discovered I couldn’t focus. The emails in my inbox seemed to swim, and I realized tears had welled in my eyes. A coworker passing my cubicle noticed me wiping my eyes and leaned in and said, “Don’t worry about anything she says. She’s a bully.”

“But she targets me more than anyone else.”

“That’s because you take it.”

I can’t get my coworker’s words out of my head. Does this mean the problem is me?


You own part of the problem, which means you can fix it.

Bullies operate with risk/benefit radar, zeroing in on people they consider easy prey — often the nicest people in the workplace. Do others know you won’t confront them if they tread on you? Bullies perceive avoidance as weakness and an invitation to take advantage. They eat nice people alive.


You may have become your supervisor’s favorite target because you overlooked deteriorating treatment until the situation became so problematic it cratered you. Many victims of workplace bullying later admit “I expected things to get better,” not realizing that bullies test potential victims. You need to fail a bully’s initial tests. When you don’t, you encourage continued and escalated bullying.

The good news: It’s not too late. When you realize you’ve played a game your bully supervisor set in motion, you can assess your own actions and stop playing by the bully’s rules. Does your supervisor tongue-lash you while you sit silently? Starting today, take notes. Document her exact words. You may be able to use them to hang her.

Bully supervisors chip away at their employees’ self-confidence and potential with belittling comments. If your supervisor’s remarks now leave you tongue-tied and defensive, shield yourself by learning how to stand up for yourself. Although “thank you” often works in professional situations, you thanked your supervisor for spending 30 minutes telling you everything you did wrong.

By allowing disrespectful treatment, you collude with the bully and abdicate your responsibility to yourself. If you wouldn’t let another person stomp on your foot or physically slam you off balance, don’t let a bully stomp on your spirit or bump into and push you over inside your head.

In some situations, you may not be able to directly counter your supervisor without risking your job. If this fits you, remember you can counter her inside your own head. Don’t take your supervisor’s comments personally. When you mentally ingest a bully’s caustic comments, you allow them to poison your self-esteem and weaken your spirit. Once you eat the bully’s garbage, it becomes your garbage and you stop believing in yourself, your abilities and your right to be treated professionally.

Further, don’t collude with your bully’s put downs by tearing yourself down. If you find yourself thinking “She thinks I’m stupid; I wonder if she’s right,” you’ve allowed your bully to ravage your self-worth.

You may be able to get help from someone above your supervisor — perhaps a senior manager or your human resources manager. Often you can’t, as others may not realize your bully supervisor’s aggressive or manipulative nature. She may present a charming façade to those she’s not targeting. If so, or if there’s no one you can go to, you’re the one who needs to act to protect yourself. You’ll find detailed information for how to do this in my book “Beating the Workplace Bully,” which includes multiple self-tests that assess you and your situation. By learning to change how you react and act, you can hamstring your bully.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Beating the Workplace Bully" and “Solutions,” and Submit questions at or follow her on, or @lynnecurry10 on X/Twitter.