Surviving a Boss Who Yells

Posted February 27, 2013 by Kristen J. Zavo in On the Ladder

As a management consultant focused on finance and interim management, I’ve always worked in a male-dominated field.  And for the most part, that’s been a good thing.  I’ve learned how to be (or act!) more confident, how important it is to take risks, and that you should never be afraid to ask for what you want.  But one of the things I had to come to terms with pretty early on, was dealing with managers that had tempers.  I’m talking yelling, publicly humiliating, throwing-chairs type of tempers.*

I suspect that many of us have been on the receiving end of a manager’s tirade.  In my case, even if my manager wasn’t yelling at me per se, but just expressing general frustration, it never felt right to me.  It’s a form of disrespect (he wouldn’t yell at his manager, would he?) and it creates unnecessary stress and even resentment on everyone’s part – the person being yelled at, the team, and the client.  Leading by fear can be effective, but it’s demoralizing and demotivating in the long run.  Over the years, I’ve come up with two strategies for surviving the boss that yells.

#1 – Set your boundaries

People treat you the way you let them treat you.  Or put another way, you teach people how to treat you.  After a couple of situations like the one described above, I decided that the next time it happened, I would calmly address the behavior and set my boundaries by making it clear that it was not okay to yell at me.  My first opportunity to try this out happened to be with a manager, Don, that was known for being extremely intelligent, but also very intense and a real workaholic.**  Many feared him and everyone took pity on the poor souls that were staffed on his projects.

My turn finally came.  As usual, the client was in a crisis situation and its employees were short-staffed and not moving fast enough.  I was on a call with Don when he started screaming into the phone – why wasn’t it done, why weren’t they cooperating, was I making it clear how important the task at hand was?

I was prepared this time and calmly and in the most respectful way possible, said something to the effect of, “Don, no need to raise your voice, I can hear you.  I can tell you are pretty stressed – let’s regroup when you’ve had a chance to calm down.”   Silence.  Uh-oh, had I pushed it too far?  After a long pause, and with a lower tone of voice, Don agreed that yes – he was upset, and that maybe, yes he was yelling because of that.  And then the unthinkable happened.  He apologized.  And he never yelled at me again.

#2 – Don’t take it personally

Probably the biggest lesson I learned from Don was to avoid taking things personally.  While I wasn’t going to allow his reputation for having a short fuse be an excuse for him to mistreat me, I also came to realize that it wasn’t personal.  That was just him.  Period.

As women, we tend to overanalyze interactions with coworkers, especially managers.  The wrong tone, a look, a pause that is a little too long – they can all be indicators that something isn’t right, and an invitation to replay the conversation in our heads, over and over again.  We stress ourselves out to figure out what we did wrong, how can we make it right, and maybe even go as far as to question our own ability to do the job.  But for the most part, when it comes to men and business, you will save yourself a lot of energy by taking things at face value.  Really.  It’s not personal.

But aren’t these conflicting strategies?

Setting boundaries and not taking this personally almost seem to be conflicting strategies.  On the one hand, I am encouraging you to teach your manager how to treat you.  And then I tell you to let it go and not take it personally.  The key here is to not think of them as opposing ideas, but to find the balance that works for you.

You will know when you hit that sweet spot when you feel good about your relationship with your manager.  You feel respected as the professional you are, and you no longer obsess over your interactions.  This will allow you to focus your energy on what is most important, which is finding a way to make an meaningful impact by doing your best and helping others to do the same.


*Although I witnessed it, I thankfully have never been the target of a flying chair!

**Name has been changed to protect the innocent.

About the Author

Kristen J. Zavo

Kristen J. Zavo is a product development, strategy and innovation professional, with a special interest in the retail industry. Having always been interested in the people side of business, Kristen loves to explore, reflect on, and share stories about the challenges and adventures of being a businesswoman. No topic is off limits - whether it's how to handle being the only woman in the boardroom, or figuring out how to to pack all the "essentials" for a 2-week business trip in just a carry-on! Outside of work, she loves exploring new places, spending time at the beach and meeting friends to workout (spin or yoga, anyone?!).