Dealing with a Boss Who Yells While Keeping Your Cool

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By Dr. Lynn Friedman
Special to
Tuesday, November 29, 2005; 3:48 PM

You love your work. Moreover, you think are good at it. But, your boss yells at you -- and, in public. It's mortifying. You are concerned that if others see how you are being treated, they'll devalue you too.

Or, they will think that you are somehow responsible for the boss's misbehavior. So, you want to put a stop to the yelling and you want to do so without losing your job.

Your task entails three parts:

  • Perspective-taking.

  • Managing your own behavior.

  • Understanding the bosses behavior and intervening


    First, remember, yelling in the workplace is inappropriate. Even if you are not perfect at your job, there are other, presumably more effective, ways for your boss to communicate with you.

    You have a right to make mistakes and to learn from them without being crucified. If your boss regularly yells at you in public, it is highly likely that the boss has a problem and that his or her colleagues know it. Therefore, they may have more sympathy for you than you imagine. This behavior does not reflect well on him. Finally, his yelling problem did not start when you arrived. Likely, it's a long-standing problem.

    Managing Your Own Behavior

    Your boss is out of control. But, you should remain in control -- of yourself. Handle yourself calmly in the face of siege. When the boss throws a tirade, do not respond with one. Tell your boss that you think that you both need to take a minute to cool off and then talk about the situation quietly and in private. Then, excuse yourself and go into the restroom.

    This is not so easy to do in the heat of the moment, so, practice, practice, practice. Role play with a friend. Envision your worst case scenario with your boss and a calm response to that scenario. Your calm reply will impress everyone who observes it, even the boss.

    Understanding the boss's behavior and intervening

    Try to better understand what function this erratic behavior serves.

    This step is necessary for changing or managing the behavior. What precipitates this behavior and what does your boss get out of it? Why is the boss engaging in this behavior when so many other behaviors are more appropriate and potentially more effective?

    Take note of when the boss yells, where the boss yells, what the boss yells, what the boss is yelling about and who else the boss yells at.

    Identify the boss's work-related stresses and strains. Ask yourself, does this behavior have anything to do with me? It may not be at all personal. For example, if you work in an accounting firm and you observe that the yelling occurs between April 10-15, you may want to consider asking your boss (in advance) what you can do to help prepare for April 15. In fact, your stance might be to provide reassurance that you will stay and help until all of the work is done.

    If you think that the behavior has something to do with your work, wait until a calmer moment. Schedule a meeting and ask for feedback and help. Structure the feedback session so that you will get feedback on both what you are doing well and what areas warrant further improvement.

    Do your best to be nondefensive as possible. And be sure to give the boss a little feedback too. You might say, "I wanted to give you some feedback. I really like this job. I like the work that you assign me. And I feel that in many respects, you are an excellent boss for me."

    Then, identify your bosses strengths. For example you might say, "I feel that I am learning about how to market from watching you firsthand."

    Now, shift the area that makes you uncomfortable. Only select one area.

    You could say, "However, I am uncomfortable with the way in which you criticize me in public. I am always willing to accept constructive criticism, but I need to hear it in private to benefit from it."

    Politely setting these kinds of limits does not always work, but it reveals that you are a true professional.

    Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst and work-life consultant in full-time, private practice near the Bethesda metro. She is on the adjunct faculty in the Organizational Development-Human Resource program at Johns Hopkins. More of her work can be found on

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