…you have a dick manager.

You’re in a staff meeting with your management team peers and things seem to be going just fine when suddenly your boss turns to you and says something really ugly. It could be telling you your idea sucks. It could be dumping on the way you manage your team. It will be shot through with criticism and laden with the implication that you are terrible at your job, and maybe even not very bright.

You, of all people! The person who is respected by everyone, who everyone knows is an overachiever. You, who have never been treated like this before in your professional life!

But now, here it is. And there’s an audience.

At first you can’t believe what you heard. Then it feels like your brain is leaving your body. Your head buzzes, your mouth dries. And it’s your turn to talk.

The way you handle this moment will determine the relationship you have with your boss from then on, and it will affect the way your peers see you. Handled well, it’s a rough patch that you can clear up so everyone can move on. Handled poorly, it may be the end of the line in this job, or it may damage your ability to be effective from now on.

Here’s what not to do: tear up, grab your things and run out of the room; get defensive and fight back against the criticism; blame someone else.

Instead, your first goal is to try to defer the conversation to another time and place. You don’t want to have a performance discussion in front your peers. As long as there are other people in the room, your boss isn’t just talking to you, they’re putting on a show for everyone else.

Suggest that you talk about solutions now and leave the discussion about the cause of the problem for a one-on-one later.

Or say you need time to look into the problem.

Just don’t start defending yourself. It’s a natural impulse, but it will make you look weak and a little pitiful.

Throughout, always keep your cool. Don’t raise your voice or get agitated, no matter what comes out of the boss’s mouth. Someone has to be the adult. Let it be you.

Later, consider what happened. Were you surprised by the boss’s outburst, or just that it was aimed at you? That kind of public berating is never OK, and if you’ve seen your boss do it to someone else, it was only a matter of time until it happened to you.

Where did it come from? Is the boss just a hothead or is there someone pulling the strings? A management team peer perhaps? In either case, should you have seen it coming?

What comes next will depend on you, your boss and your company culture. When you talk to the boss later, address the problem and try to figure out a solution. Keep focused on facts–what happened, or didn’t, and how to prevent a repeat. Steer the conversation away from talk of character flaws and feelings and make it all about the facts.

If this kind of behavior is routinely tolerated in your company, don’t bother filing a complaint unless there were discriminatory or suggestive comments. Discrimination and sexual harassment are illegal. Being a dick manager isn’t.

No matter how deserved, don’t throw your team under the bus. You’re the manager, so if one of your people screwed up, it’s still your fault. Accept responsibility and figure out how to fix whatever went wrong.

Look inside too. Though the boss’s behavior was out of line, was there a nugget of truth in there? Is there something you can learn from this despite the attitude? Is your communication style effective with the boss or do you need to change it up?

And consider that you may simply have a bully boss. If the outburst seems random, the boss can’t talk about fixing the problem and there’s no certain path to success, you have a bully boss. Nothing you do will prevent another reaming because it’s not really about you. It’s about the insecure bully’s fragile ego and their constant fear that they will be found out.

You can work through an outburst from an otherwise decent boss, but if your boss is a bully, it’s time to move on.


To learn more about how to be a successful manager, read Don’t Be a Dick Manager: The Down & Dirty Guide to Management. It’s the management training you never got, available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.com. The audiobook is available from AmazonAudible and iTunes.

Do you think you might be a dick manager? Take the quiz!