How to Create Boundaries with Your Ruthless Boss

During my time at the Austen Riggs Center, I learned much from the experienced clinicians there about dealing with a host of difficult personality types. A recurring theme in my research and interactions with therapists there, and in my consulting work, is the need to create boundaries. It’s healthy to have good boundaries with everyone in our lives, even those we love, but when it comes to having them with an abusive boss, it’s crucial to our survival. Setting boundaries is much easier, however, with your garden-variety passive-aggressive types and narcissists. Mean men have a tendency to see a boundary as a challenge to defeat, at least initially. Because of their tendency to be manipulative, it can be especially hard to hold the line.

You don’t need to announce to your boss your desire to set boundaries—and in many cases you shouldn’t, as it may only raise his defenses, provoking aggression. Boundaries are more about your own behaviors than those of others. Sometimes, nonverbal cues can be extremely useful. When you let certain phone calls roll over to voice mail or wait to respond to e-mails at particular parts of the day, you’re setting boundaries. When you leave the endless heap of work-related Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn notifications for the next day, you’re setting boundaries.

When Disney and Pixar president Ed Catmull began working with Steve Jobs, he picked up quickly on Jobs’s controlling and often confrontational style. But he ended up managing Jobs by intentionally avoiding those situations that had a pattern of leading to conflict. For Catmull, managing Jobs was all about timing, not avoidance. Eventually, he’d get back to Jobs with an answer or other response but not until he believed Jobs’s toxic energy had been depleted on the subject.

Boundaries are especially important when dealing with disordered personalities. Sometimes, active listening is not enough to quell a conflict with the more difficult types. As much as I depend on this technique in my professional work and personal relationships, I’m always intrigued by its failure with those displaying psychopathic traits, as subclinical as they may be.

A consulting client of mine, Aaron,* who definitely fit the profile of a mean man, was in an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa,* that showed no signs of getting better until she began to set boundaries. Near the end of their relationship, Lisa learned from a counselor that implementing boundaries could bring down Aaron’s rage level. When he acted in an inflammatory manner, she would simply refuse to engage. When he started screaming, she would stay in her own psychological space, barely listening to him while she resumed doing other things. When he tried to start a fight, she would respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t know what triggered this mood you have, but I know that I’m feeling okay.” And then she would leave the room. With her boundary firmly in place, Aaron’s maladaptive way of seeking control lost steam; he got less relief from screaming or being irritating. Her refusal to engage with his irate behavior left him swimming in his own swamp.

Mean men require considerable stimulation in their life. Simply put, they become bored more easily than the rest of us. A mean man often experiences an extreme type of boredom that best be described by the French term ennui: an oppressive boredom that often leads to lethargy. Drama is a mean man’s recipe for staving off ennui, but it requires an audience and perhaps an additional actor or two. As the drama begins, he feels invigorated and alive. Control and manipulation can empower a mean man, especially when he can successfully elicit the emotions of others. Crazy as it may sound, he thrives on this drama, regardless of what it is, as long as he sees it as a result of his actions, a sign that the world revolves around him.

Having the key to a victim’s emotions is just what the mean man needs to feel in control. Manipulation is a form of success for a mean man, and he must create drama in order to achieve it. The more reactions he sees as a result of this drama, the more he craves it, and an addiction begins to grow.

But what happens when the reward for drama stops coming? What if the person who consistently reacts to his wrath chooses to disengage like Lisa did with Aaron? More often than not, the person with psychopathic tendencies, the mean man, will become bored, and we know how intolerable that is for him. If those around him show no emotion, he may decide it’s not worth creating the drama if he gets nothing from it.

This strategy—essentially to become boring to him—is a highly effective way to create a boundary. Employees of a tyrannical manager can set boundaries merely by taking away the usual satisfaction he gets from seeing them afraid and upset. When he sees these reactions dwindle, his power is challenged, and he will soon grow bored.

If you are cursed with a boss like this, you must at some point consider more seriously an exit strategy. While boundaries can “shape” some elements of his repulsive behavior, you will not stop it; you will not change him. Assuming you don’t want to be a leading character in this melodrama, start with boundaries and then determine how to get off the stage with him. Permanently.


*Names have been changed.