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Commentary: How can you deal with an aggressive, bullying boss? What if it’s your colleague?

When our workplaces become arenas for toxic behaviour, productivity and mental health of workers are affected. Organisational behavior academic Serene Ng offers tips on how to navigate these behaviours.

 Commentary:  How can you deal with an aggressive, bullying boss? What if it’s your colleague?

Aggressive behaviour in the workplace can lead to poor work culture. (Photo: iStockphoto/tuaindeed)

SINGAPORE: Sandra* had been suffering from bouts of anxiety and found it hard to sleep. Like many, she has been working from home and began to dread the regular team meetings online.

She was constantly worried about being berated by her boss who had a habit of singling out staff for slip-ups like the team’s missed deadlines. The tone and approach her boss used made her feel worthless.

In her organisation, her online status had to show “green” during office hours. Staff were expected to respond instantly to all messages or emails from the boss.

Sandra ended up crying during her “approved bio-break” and eventually had to seek help from the company’s counsellor.

Sandra’s case is much more common than we realise.

In the latest Kantar survey on workplace inclusion index, one in five employees reported being bullied or harassed, especially after working from home.

Correspondingly, one in three experienced stress and anxiety, more than half said they don’t feel emotionally supported and one in 10 reported mental health related illness such as depression.

Despite increasing awareness and supporting academic research of the damage workplace bullying can do to individuals and organisations, such hostile behaviours persist.  

Physical abuse, like hitting someone, are less common because assault is a criminal offence and perpetrators can be taken to task by the law. What are more common and less visible are both verbal abuse like the use of rude comments and non-verbal, non-physical harassment.


Petty tyranny, bullying, actions undermining the credibility of a worker and aggression are some common behaviours in the workplace.

Generally, these can be divided into active-aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviours.

Bosses or colleagues ridiculing and putting down a co-worker are active-aggressive behaviours. Snide remarks like, “Surely a graduate like you could think better” or “What is taking you so long to understand this simple task” are common examples.

Passive-aggressive behaviour can come in a variety of forms: Back-stabbing, stealing credit, deliberately rolling one's eyes when someone in the team is speaking, and making scathing comments about co-workers.

These passive-aggressive behaviours are increasingly spilling online too – where certain members are excluded from group chats or screenshots of private conversations are shared to cause embarrassment.

While bad behaviour may seem obvious to the victim or to an observer, the aggressor may not usually view it that way.

For example, a worker may feel that her boss is overly harsh when correcting work. However, the boss may feel his actions are justified because this "tough love" is the only way an employee trains and improves.

Others put it down to personality – saying, this is simply their working style and it is not meant to be personal.

How managers and colleagues behave during online meetings also matter. (Photo: AFP/Loic VENANCE)

While these may be true, such actions can be counterproductive in the long run. When both the aggressor and the victim cannot see beyond their own lens and continue to perpetuate their beliefs and behaviours, the relationship can spiral and a hostile workplace emerge as a result.

Behaviours at the top can trickle down too. Studies from psychology journals show victims tend to displace their aggression by taking it out on their subordinates. Some externalise through things like shirking work or being more absent.

When bullied by a co-worker, workers usually have less inhibition in seeking redress. Most will retaliate directly by saying something sarcastic, even hurtful, to publicly embarrass the colleague or engage in gossiping and back-stabbing. 

Again, these micro-aggressions add up and contribute to a toxic organisational climate.


Research on workplace abuse suggest most bullying bosses do not intentionally inflict hostilities on their staff.  

We forget managers behave based on what they learnt in climbing up their own career ladder. Many have a history of being abused by their bosses or learnt to use fear as a management technique. 

Another key factor is workplace stressors. My recent research on abusive supervision published in the Journal of Management and Organisation showed that resource-drained supervisors who face demands under competitive work environments are prone to stress and take out their frustrations by being aggressive towards their subordinates.

Understanding these triggers can help organisations work out actionable interventions that can stop this cycle of workplace bullying.

EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung and HR practitioner Adrian Tan discuss what returning to the office will be like in this episode of Heart of the Matter.


So the question remains: What do you do if you're facing such a situation? Leaving and quitting your job is one option but it is also a conflict-avoidance coping strategy. There is no guarantee that you will not encounter an abusive boss or co-worker at the new workplace.

Workers also tend to hold off frank feedback to the HR department on why they are really leaving – many have a lingering fear of backlash and believe “burning bridges” is not a smart move, especially if they plan to work in the same industry.

My advice is to surround yourself with good social support, whether your family or fellow colleagues. Lean on them for advice and engage in activities that uplift you.

Second, do not suffer in silence. Take practical steps to cope. Deal with the issue early. Jot down details of actions that bothered you and take note of why and how it impacted you. Speak with a trusted colleague, friend or family member to validate your assessments.

Then schedule a discussion with the person to address the issue to clarify and agree on an action plan. If the perceived aggressor is your boss, it may be helpful to bring along a fellow colleague.

Often, talking to the person face-to-face with the intention to clarify misconceptions and foster a more positive relationship can be an important step in changing the situation. If all fails, consider escalating these issues to a higher authority or the HR department for intervention.


Companies, organisations and regulatory bodies must do more to address abusive behaviours. The medical term primum non nocere (first do no harm) must apply in the workplace. It is not only good for the organisation’s bottom line, ultimately it is the right thing to do.

Having leaders take a hard line will send a strong message. Just as US President Joe Biden had warned that he will fire any staff “on the spot” if he hears that they had shown “disrespect” to others in their professional conduct, corporate leaders should demonstrate how important integrity means to them.

Policy and organisational support must also be in place. A zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullying, with an ombudsman or whistle blowing channel to investigate harassment can provide a psychological platform for employees to voice concerns. Employee assistance programmes can help to cushion the negative mental health impact of such actions.

Ethics training especially for managers to understand how to manage hostilities would help in stemming workplace bullying.  All these measures can build a healthier, more positive workplace for employees.

Failing to tackle such issues could hurt a company’s reputation and lead to bigger problems. High absenteeism, high turnover as well as the contagion effects of stress and anxiety adds to the costs of doing business. All these can be damaging to the organisation. 

Over time and with increased awareness, organisations will realise that they need to put in place policies and practices that provide safe workplace for their employees.

The consequences can be significant. Talent will walk, leave negative remarks on social platforms and move to companies with better workplace practices.

*Pseudonyms have been used in this commentary to protect the identities of the people mentioned.

Dr Serene Ng has done extensive work on organisational behaviour. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

Source: CNA/cr


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