“What if my Bully Boss is a sole practitioner Physician?”

Question: Dear Mr. Sklover, Everything I read or watch on the internet regarding “Bully Bosses” pertains to corporate settings, in which one is being bullied by middle management. What if the Bully Boss IS the employer?

I am a Nurse Practitioner employed by a Physician who periodically accosts me with verbal abuse, and threats regarding my salary, because our practice is new and not thriving financially. He screams at me, and his most recent tirade included this comment: “I am not a Communist; I cannot support you.”

He yells about the fact that I report in at 8:30 am instead of 8:00 am, when that is what we agreed pre-employment. It goes beyond the scope of the forum.

Please comment upon any options I may have, beyond seeking other employment, which I anticipate will be your advice. Thank you!

Sewell, New Jersey

Answer: Dear Robin: You are correct; I don’t remember ever reading anything on the Internet about how to deal with a Bully Boss who IS, himself or herself, the employer. And you were correct, too, in that at least one of your options is to seek employment elsewhere. Let me be the first on the Internet to offer advice to you and others in your circumstance.

1. First “Lesson” of Navigating and Negotiating at Work: Every living thing – from a bug to an elephant, from a tree to a human – will likely respond to its perceptions of its self-interest. This is simply because every living thing (with very few exceptions) wants to go on living, and its perceived self-interest is what it takes to continue living.

I can make a plant “behave” differently if I lower the window shade and shine a bright light from the other side of the room. I can change the behavior of an elephant if I make it believe I may give it a large bale of delicious jungle grass. I can probably make a Physician change his or her behavior, too, but not by either a window shade or a bale of jungle grass.

2. To change the behavior of a Physician, you need to convince him or her that his or her self-interests are at stake. What do most Physician’s see as their self-interests? How about: (a) making their medical practices financially rewarding; (b) keeping their medical licenses; (c) keeping the patients they already have, and getting new ones; (d) perhaps more time with family. That is where we must begin our thinking, because these are the kinds of things that are key to altering your employer’s thinking and, hopefully, his behavior, if that is possible.

3. To determine (a) what your Physician-Employer wants and (b) what he fears – the things that truly motivate him – just listen to what he is saying. According to your brief email, he wants (a) to pay you less, (b) to have you come in earlier, and (c) more patients. Well, those may be the very keys to your dilemma. Might you be viewed as someone who can help him get those things – provided he keeps himself under control? With these things in mind, we can be imaginative about possible solutions to the bullying problem.

I don’t mean to suggest placating a bully; I do mean to suggest fighting him the most effective way is necessary to “beat the bully beast” out of him.

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4. Permit yourself to “brainstorm” about how you might be viewed by your employer to be either a “solution” to his wants, or a “problem” to be feared. Please let me be imaginative for you, even if for the moment I am not being practical or realistic. Imagine, for the moment, you said you would (a) work for three-quarters your present salary, (b) you would come in at 7:30 am, and (c) you would put on free seminars to bring in new patients. That, in return for (a) the repayment of your one-quarter of your deferred income paid to you when business picked up, (b) extra days off in the future, and (c) a percentage of fees collected paid to you for each new patient your efforts brought in? But all on one major condition: he stop the Bully Boss behavior and/or go to counseling immediately.

I know this may not be practical or realistic, but it is a way of thinking that is one of the only two really effective ways you can affect another person’s behaviors. Let’s call this the “carrot” approach.

The other approach might be called the “stick.” In a calmly worded memo, sent over the weekend by email, you might advise your boss that, if he does not immediately halt his bullying behavior, or at least commence counseling for it, (i) you will have no choice but to consider leaving, (ii) perhaps filing a complaint that you believe his fits of anger may make it questionable that he should keep his medical license, and (iii) you may go to work for a competing physician and then take all of the patients away that you can. You might even raise the specter of taking him to court for his damaging behaviors, which could not be good for either his checkbook or his reputation in the community, even if you don’t intend to.

5. This is really the equivalent of what I suggest people do to address a “bully boss” problem in the corporate context. When we go to the Board Members of a corporation, or the CEO, or to Human Resources, we are really doing the same thing we noted above, just appealing to their sense of their own self-interests, and through them, a degree of control of the Bully Boss. If they permit the bullying to continue, they may face repercussions of the same types we noted above – good or bad.

6. Nothing is without risks of various kinds, including retaliation, but there is no greater risk than losing your health. I anticipate that you say to yourself, “But I might get fired for that.” Yes, you might, but then again you might not. And then again, you might get fired, anyway, even if you do nothing. And, too, remember that standing up to a Bully Boss is really the only real way to stop the bullying, if there is any way at all.

Robin, there must be something “good enough” about your Physician-Employer, or the job, or the office location, or maybe the patients, that make you ask for solutions other than finding a new job. It is for that reason that I suggest this type of thinking, because – in one way or another, the whole world works this way. Oh, some people find spiritual matters most important, and some people hold money to be the be-all-and-end-all. But we all respond best when others raise – and possibly reward – our sense of our self-interests.

Hope you find this of interest and benefit. Thanks for writing in. And – Good Luck.

Al Sklover

P.S. Our Model Involuntary Resignation Letter is a favorite among our blog visitors. You can read about our concept of “Involuntary Resignation” in our Resource Center. To obtain a copy of our Model Letter, just [ click here. ]

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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