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How to Handle Aggression from Authority

The core definition that constitutes “bullying” is an imbalance of power.  The challenge when we experience aggression from authority is that a power imbalance is a structure in which professional relationship exists, especially in the case of a manager and an employee. No matter what you do or say, there is a boss to answer to.  When you experience aggression from a superior, you may be tempted to fight back, quit, or go to their boss for support. 

If the aggression is extreme and you’re in danger, taking action in this way may be necessary.  Most of the time though, it’s the small conflicts and rude behaviors that build over time stressing you out.  You already know that your boss has power over you but respecting this social structure is important to keep in mind.  If you try to take power (no matter the means), it can create an inappropriate dynamic in the relationship.

So, how do you resolve the conflict?  Here are some steps…

1. Understand what Conflict is:  

Aggression/conflict comes from an unmet need or one person’s need getting in the way of another.  When we remind ourselves that a person’s needs are not being met, it can expand our compassion and grace for their behavior (when it’s aggressive). 

If the conflict is becoming unsafe, understand that you may not be the person or be in the place to address it.  That’s fine.  Move onto step two and see if that changes after some time.


Boss bullies employees

2. Build Support & Safety:

Setting boundaries and coping are important before taking the next step.  Start by dealing with your anxious thoughts, feelings, and fears.  Take some time to “get it out” in a way that’s relaxing and helpful.  This could be journaling, taking a walk, or going for a bike ride.  The goal is to be honest about how you are feeling so that you know where your personal starting line is.  It’s helpful to talk through this with someone who’s outside of the situation such as a counselor, therapist, or pastor.  Your spouse or friends may take sides.  Try to find someone who will both support and challenge you. 

Remember that emotional resilience is developed by leveraging adversity for psychological growth.  It’s awesome to think that you could benefit from even “elephant-sized” issues.  The greater the conflict, the greater the opportunity for growth. This could actually be good for you, in the long run.

Ask yourself…
a. How could this be worse?
b. Will this matter in the future?
c. What good could come from this?

When you’re emotionally ready…

3. Lean into the Relationship: 

Look for ways to add value to the person who’s troubling you.  This could be a series of gifts, compliments, etc.  The goal is to change your mindset and theirs – from enemies or unpleasant associates to one that is friendly (and hopefully) a bit trusting.  You don’t need to be friends with this person but you should be friend-ly TO this person. It may feel like “emotional yoga” (a stretch).  That signifies growth.  Leaning too far will feel like a strain.  If this happens, review step two and lean back in when you can, as far as you can.  Remember that feelings don’t equal truth.  You may be 100% even though you feel unsafe.  Don’t let your feelings boss you around. Put your thoughts on trial and examine them for truth.  Not “your truth”.  The truth.  Look at the facts with an outsider who’s non emotionally impacted be the outcome.

4. Discuss Needs:

This isn’t the time to address the conflict but you’re getting closer.  Ask the person what they need.  You might start with telling them that you’ve been feeling anxious or unhappy and mention that it seems that they might be feeling that way too.  Be vulnerable before asking them to be vulnerable. 

Your goal is to walk away with an understanding of that person’s needs and share yours; if they’re willing to listen.  Seek to understand before being understood.

5. Address the Point of Conflict: 

Okay, you’re getting ready to address the conflict head-on.  To make this discussion easier, take these baby steps.

Before you address the conflict…
a. Reflect on your “Needs” discussion

b. Identify the point of conflict – this is where your needs got in the way of their needs
c. Think through what a win-win would look like.  You must want both of you to win for the conversation to go well.
d. Set it up for success – People are more likely to get defensive if they feel like you’ve set up “The Talk” or scheduled “The Meeting”.  No one likes staring across the table in the boardroom. This is likely to put both of you on edge.  Take the pressure off by setting up the discussion in a way that feels casual and non-threatening.  Take a walk, grab a coffee, or bring in your favorite dessert to share.


The conversation should flow like this…
Reflect – “I’ve been thinking about what our conversation (on needs)”
Respect – “That’s really important to me.  I respect your position and know it comes with many challenges”.

Responsibility – “I’m sorry for… I’d like to commit to… I think I make things easier on you by…”
Resolution – “I’d really like to solve this.  What do you think about…?  Would you be willing to…?” 

Try to walk away with a plan or an agreement.  If this happens, it will be a weight off your shoulder.  If the discussion doesn’t go well, remind yourself that it takes time and practice.  Few people hit a home run, their first-time at-bat.  Don’t give up.   Repeat steps 1-4 and return to step 5 again when the time seems right. 

If progress isn’t happening, you may need a mediator.  If possible, choose someone together that can help you work through the conflict.  If they refuse, you may need to reach out to someone above them.  In some cases, you must place a hard boundary or leave your position.  If a company policy has been violated, it may need to be addressed. Your job is to “treat them the way that you want to be treated”.  Don’t villainize or try to get them in trouble.   You wouldn’t like it if they did that to you.  Do all you can to work peaceably with them.