15 signs your boss is trying to intimidate you (and how to respond)

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I work in a semi-prestigious art museum in a medium-sized American city (which shall remain unnamed). At this museum, I have been under the same boss since beginning the job.

Let’s call her Helen (I changed her name to protect anonymity. The art world is a small place, after all and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers).

When I started my job two years ago, Helen was respectful and helpful in her management of myself and fellow coworkers.

I was just excited to be onboard.

My first impressions have changed dramatically since then, however.

Helen has become a waking nightmare in so many ways. The worst part from my perspective is how she tries to intimidate me into doing only what she wants.

15 signs your boss is trying to intimidate you (and how to respond)

Helen’s behavior is erratic. Every week she’s on a new tear about something or trying to get me to change how I work and my “attitude.”

But I’ve noticed patterns in what she does. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’ve agreed that these characteristics show up in bosses who want to push you around.

1) They talk to you disrespectfully

The way Helen talks to me when I’m doing what she wants is very sweetly and in a low, cooing way. It’s kind of endearing and creepy at the same time.

The way Helen talks to me when I have other ideas about what pieces to hang or collections is like she’s scolding a small child. She doesn’t make eye contact in these cases, either, and tends to stare half at the ceiling and drawling in exasperation.

Bosses who talk disrespectfully tend to believe they have a blank check. After all, they write or authorize the checks that go to you.

This kind of behavior is really low and can grind on your mental and emotional health very badly after a while.

If your boss talks to you this way, tell them you would like to be spoken to a bit more respectfully and thank them for understanding.

2) They brag about their superiority

Another super annoying thing that intimidating bosses do is brag about their superiority.

Helen constantly brags about how she has a Ph. D. in Renaissance art from Princeton. She says it so much that me and a few coworkers have a running joke that she has a Ph. D. in being a bitch from Princeton.

We don’t say that when she’s around, however. We just listen to this lady hold court about how her experience and depth of knowledge is so stunning and we should all be in awe of her.

If she’s that in need of validation and worship from others, I worry about her mental health.

Yet I know this also serves the purpose of her

3) They try to disempower and discredit you

The main thing Helen does at work is try to disempower me when I am not doing exactly everything she wants.

If I respond to an email even slightly differently than she would, she swoops in and micromanages a followup, peering over my should like a hawk.

I feel so disempowered, and lately I started looking into ways to turn around my feeling of being a puppet who’s always on somebody else’s string.

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4) They stir up internal conflicts at work

Helen is a drama queen who loves to gossip. She’s away on business trips quite a lot and taking visits to see private collections and all that.

But when she is at the office, or is messaging on our internal office Slack channel, she can be a very mean lady.

Her favorite thing to do is to compliment one of us strongly while implying that everyone other than that person is a failure who has strongly disappointed her.

In other situations, she’ll comment on someone embarrassing themselves when an important guest visited or having made a foible about the background of a piece.

If your boss stirs up internal conflict at work and addresses employee mistakes in public channels to embarrass others, they are clearly trying to intimidate you.

They want to make it very apparent that if you don’t do everything their way and flawlessly, you will get panned in front of everyone.

5) They play games with you

Does your boss play games with you? Helen certainly does.

She’ll comment on a colleague’s hairstyle looking hot and then mock it the next day.

She’ll tell me that she loves my vision of developing our museum’s Renaissance collection and then laugh at the idea a week later.

“Oh that? I mean … It’s not really what we’re about here,” she’ll say, rolling her eyes.

Bosses who play games do it for two main reasons. They do it because they’re bullies who enjoy taunting employees, or they do it to intimidate and showcase their power.

If your boss is doing this, you’ve got a bad boss on your hands.

6) They joke at your expense

Helen has a terrible sense of humor, but she likes to use the little she has to joke at our expense.

I work in the procurement department and am in charge of helping us acquire and lease out some of the world’s most wonderful artworks.

Helen once played a joke on me that I was receiving a once-in-lifetime shot at bringing in an original van Gogh sketch, then revealed hours later that she’d just been testing my reaction.

Hilarious.

One of the janitors who works in our museum once had his picture posted by her without his permission on social media so she could make a joke about how we were hosting a new exhibit focused on the working class.

It was super not cool.

If your boss does things like this, be careful because they’re trying to intimidate you and overreach their power.

7) They dangle promotions

Helen doesn’t do this very much because she very rarely grants any promotions and always refers vaguely to the board when topics of career advancement arise.

However this is definitely a tactic that bosses use when trying to intimidate you.

They will tell you that you have to do things their way and on their timetable if you want a piece of the pie.

If you play along, you may or may not get the reward. More often than not they will have more hurdles for you to jump through once you complete the first stages of fulfilling their will.

8) They make you lose sight of your life goals

Another way that bosses try to intimidate is by distracting you from your life goals.

They want you focused only on their priorities and their timetable.

What you want starts to fade away so much that you almost forget it and begin to forget you ever had goals outside of doing what your boss says.

So how can you overcome this feeling of being “stuck in a rut”?

Well, you need more than just willpower, that’s for sure.

I learned about this from Life Journal, created by the highly-successful life coach and teacher Jeanette Brown.

Her method has worked wonders for me in starting to turn around the situation at work and begin focusing on other goals I have in my career and personal life.

It’s majorly reduced the stress of Helen and made me feel more competent and empowered in many ways.

9) They threaten to fire you

Donald Trump became famous in his presidential campaign for joking around about his “you’re fired!” line from the Apprentice.

But it’s all too real in the work world for bosses to throw around terms like this as a weapon of psychological intimidation.

They don’t always even mean it, but they may sneak in the word dismissal, firing or termination in conversations just to dangle that big stick.

They want to make sure employees understand that the ultimate cost of rubbing them the wrong way is a one-way ticket to the exit.

I’ve found Helen’s favorite word to use in this regard is termination. It’s profession and coldly impersonal.

She likes to put it into office memos regarding different events and procedures, noting that contravention of such and such law or regulation leaves an employee “subject to termination.”

Good to know.

The 9 to 5 rat race is not a fun place to be, that much I know for sure.

10) They reward compliance, not success

Major red warning lights here. The biggest way that I’ve found Helen to try to push around and intimidate us is by rewarding compliance over success.

I think everyone who’s had a bully boss knows just what I mean.

If an idea from the top goes totally wrong, it’s OK. That employee still gets glowing reviews for their professionalism and hard work.

But if a maverick tries to do things their way in a more creative fashion that doesn’t quite sit right with the boss, even stunning results are met with a shrug or even annoyance.

This is exactly how it is in our workplace.

If it’s this way in your workplace then you know how hard it can be.

11) They throw shade at you on social media

Social media and work are things which hopefully shouldn’t overlap but sometimes do.

We have a dedicated position for our marketing department who manages social media for the museum.

But those of us who interact on a personal basis on social media sometimes find awkward situations cropped up.

The majority of us are not personal friends with Helen, for obvious reasons. We try to stay civil, but blurring those lines just wouldn’t be a good call.

However several of us who are have had her throw shade at them about their clothes or even once joking about a painting in a colleague’s home.

If your boss is harassing his or her employees on social media it’s just inappropriate. Keep it friendly or save it for the boardroom, that’s how I see it.

12) They try to control your personal life

This verges into the next item which is a boss who inappropriately crosses lines into trying to comment on your personal life.

Helen once scolded a colleague for being “down” due to a divorce. It was revolting, and I’m kind of surprised that that employee even stayed another six months after that.

Finding your direction in life isn’t easy.

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13) They’re physically and socially intimidating around you

Thankfully our boss doesn’t do this, but if your manager is physically intimidating around you it’s time to call HR or have a good look at your legal options.

This isn’t always about throwing items around the room or hollering like a fool and slamming doors.

It can also be things like leaning into your personal space a lot while stopping at your desk…

Slamming a hand down on a surface near your workplace…

Giving you the evil eye constantly while looking at you…

And otherwise being a very troubling and aggressive presence when around you.

This includes sending threatening messages, racist or sexist jokes and other material that makes you uncomfortable in doing your job.

It’s just not OK.

14) They’re sexually inappropriate with you

Workplace sexual harassment has been under the spotlight a lot the past few years, and that’s good.

With the recent Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case, the public has also had a useful reminder that sexual violence and harassment is not just a gendered issue.

Men are also affected by it.

At our boss Helen, who is a decent-looking lady, does like to flirt with male colleagues but I haven’t seen it go further than that.

I do know that bosses who pressure employees into sex, touch them inappropriately or sext and flirt with them heavily are abusing their position of trust and power.

If a boss does this, they are trying to intimidate you into fulfilling their desires.

Don’t do it. Instead, collect evidence and use it against them in claims when you quit the job.

15) They get creepy

Being creepy comes naturally to some people, and others have to work at it.

Bosses sometimes use their natural or performative creepiness to intimidate others.

Wearing weird sunglasses inside and scraping their nails on the wall while tapping a cane… That happened yesterday.

You may also have bizarre test questions like:

“What do you think of the idea of chakras?”

You don’t know whether to answer honestly because too much credence or skepticism could be wrong and get you ridiculed or argued with. Or there could just be no “right” answer that your boss is looking for.

This kind of creepy and invasive behavior is a classic tactic of a boss trying to cross boundaries and get inside your head.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a friendly discussion about chakras.

If your boss is doing this …

Speak to colleagues and think about lodging a formal complaint with the work board.

If it hasn’t yet escalated to that level, have an honest talk with your boss and let them know your concerns.

Stand up for yourself.

Ultimately, try to find work where you are treated with dignity and respect.

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Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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