FeaturesProfessional Development

The tyranny of insecurity


Once upon a time (or two or three), I worked for an insecure boss. I’m sure most of you have unfortunate tales of your own. It seems there are more than a few insecure supervisors and managers (I’ll refer to them as bosses) who’ve created a living hell for many in the workplace. How do we address this problem—or rationalize moving on?

When insecurity becomes a defining characteristic of a boss’s personality, it can have devastating effects on a workforce. Insecure bosses may appear shy or socially restrained, or they may show signs of paranoia. Worse still are the compensatory behaviors of arrogance, aggression, and bullying.


Arrogant bosses exaggerate their own importance and promote themselves at others’ expense. They blame others for problems and make colleagues feel inferior. They discount feedback and abrogate responsibility for their own mistakes. Typically, bosses with hubris have lost touch with reality, let alone with their subordinates. Their noxious behavior is a smokescreen for lack of substance and confidence. Unfortunately, such a boss may cultivate loyalty in subordinates who’ve figured out that supporting their boss’s belief in self-importance is a strategy for success.


No one need tolerate behaviors that threaten their self-esteem or pride in their work. If you respectfully point out overtures that feel threatening or invasive, others may perceive you as “fighting back”; yet your decision to speak up is justified, enabling you to stand your ground and establish your own assertiveness and expectations for respect and teamwork. How often have you heard someone say, “If you just confront her, she’ll back down and respect you”? So let your boss know you don’t appreciate negative comments and attitudes toward you or your work.


The maxim “All bullies are cowards” rings true with insecure bosses, too. While peer-to-peer bullying is more common, no one should tolerate bullying from a boss. Bullying types include the constant critic, the friendly backstabber, the control freak, and the screamer. The bullying boss is out to seek ultimate control and to win.

The psychological contract

For most of us, the boss/subordinate relationship is a fact of work life. Healthy work environments and successful organizations have codes of conduct that dictate expectations for civility and professional behavior. These apply to boss/subordinate relationships. When we take a job, we assume there’s an inherent psychological contract that sets forth conditions and expectations such that we agree to do a good job and, in return, our employer provides a good work environment, salary, and benefits. This “contract” is personified in the supervisor/subordinate relationship.

I once told a boss he’d created a hostile work environment with actions and words that eroded our working relationship. He’d breached our psychological contract, fueling feelings of distrust and disrespect. Psychological contract breach decreases job satisfaction, organizational commitment, trust in the organization, and job performance. No wonder a boss’s people skills are more valuable than technical or conceptual ones. In their classic work Management of Organizational Behavior, Hersey and Blanchard underscored the importance of human skills and the ability to work through and with people. We should remember that executives typically get hired for experience but fired for personality.

Remember, too, that people leave bosses, not organizations. So how do we deal effectively with someone whose behavior makes it difficult to do our jobs? Once you’ve diagnosed the problem trait, ask yourself, “Can I keep myself from being a victim of aggression or bullying by confronting the behaviors and giving feedback to stop the cycle? Can I report the actions to get help, and trust I can stay? Can I continue to tolerate egotistical and arrogant behaviors?”

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you face the difficult decision of whether to stay or leave. At times, leaving a job you love or an organization you care about deeply is the only decision that makes sense. When you can’t respect the person you work for, when that person has the control to suppress your success, or when you’re feeling a loss each day you go to work, it’s time to move on. As hard as that decision might be—when it may seem unfair that an insecure boss has “won”—you must look out for your own welfare. Even if you’re the good guy who’s leaving, trust that it will feel okay over time.

The transition to a new beginning starts with an ending. You deserve to share your talent in an environment where you feel valued and respected.


  • public health nurse
    May 6, 2010 9:47 pm

    Many nurses at my worksite have been the targets of several bully bosses for years. Proving that you have been bullied or that your boss has created a hostile work environment is very difficult to prove. If you have been the target of a bully PLEASE look into this excellent book by G.& R. Namiie-both PhD’s. “The Bully at Work: What You Can do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity”.

  • Midwest nurse
    May 5, 2010 3:26 am

    My boss that lacks basic supervisory skills, she’s unable to empathize because she wants everyone to “pity her and her horrible working schedule”. She bullies and provides limited insight into limiting “fallout”. Due to an email I sent that she termed “curt”, she scolded me and said her comments were constructive, they weren’t. I asked why her perception of my email was “truth and correct” but my perception of her response was not correct. She never got it. it’s her way or no way

  • I work for a boss like this now. She is a tyrant and has created a work environment where everyone tippy-toes around her, in fear for their jobs. She stages grandiose opportunities for everyone to aacknowledge her talents. She promotes her cronies. I have loved my job until she became my boss… now I am hanging on hoping to outlast her, so I can love it again.

  • I worked for a few threatened bosses like this, also, and both happened to be work at the same institution, different departments. Does this say something about the institution (which I left anyway after my husband’s degree was completed)?

    I came to the above institution with my MSN in hand and was waiting to take my boards and needed any nursing job. I almost left that off my resume but didn’t. Most of the RN’s in this place were diploma or ADN’s. BSN’s were rare as well as MSN’s.

  • Now faculty at a University
    April 25, 2010 6:25 am

    Great article. I worked in a acute care facility as a staff nurse – hostile work environment!, in addition the discrimination (against myself & patients)was overt on good days. I went to HR 22 times. I finally filed legal action and essentially lost. Instead of supporting me, my peers at both institutions have used it against me. I’m not sure I will ever report anything again. Most nurses don’t support each other, the competition is too fierce out there & the projection process is fun too.

  • Wonderful article! Thanks for adding clarity to a topic that needs more attention!

  • It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or psychiatrist to recognize a hostile working environment, “backstabbing”, bullying and threats–overt and covert. I was “fired” for allegations that were vapid and superfluous, having nothing to do with my competence ….or salary, which was more than what my direct “supervisor” made. I was clearly threatening due to my competency, credentials and community outreach. Why didn’t I leave on my own?! I was working in a Psychiatric Dept….Am thriving now!

  • I work for such a boss. It is difficult to start a position feeling like a competent nurse and then have your integrety questioned over and over with any decision over ruled. I have learned to let it go and not take things personally, hhowever other on my staff cannot. I recently used my contacts to help another peer go to work with a comptetor with a productive and happy staff working ‘with’ not ‘under’ a wonderful RN manager.

  • Excellent article. I experienced this situation in my previous job. I loved my job but finally had to accept that the work environment and my boss’s attitude and behavior toward me was not going to change. I left what I loved but have found my professional self-respect again. This article put into well chosen words what I could not articulate. Thank you. I have found healing for some old wounds here.

  • Excellent work!

  • I have never heard the concept of the psychological contract articulated before, yet it hits the nail on the head. A very well-written article about a difficult situation that too many of us find ourselves dealing with. Thanks to the author.

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