Listen, we have all had a boss we do not necessarily get along with. Tough bosses are both good and bad, but it is not always obvious to tell the difference between a tough boss and a bully. No one wants to work for or with a bully; spending 40+ hours per week with such people can take its toll.

What is a tough leader?

A tough leader is someone who demands the highest quality of work from you and the team. They know what the team is capable of and provide the resources, leadership and structure in order to surpass those expectations. A tough leader is, of course, tough, but they have the right mindset regarding the team as well as your personal development.

Here are a few ways to distinguish between a tough boss and a bully:

High Goals versus Unattainable Results

Tough bosses are good leaders in the sense that they are able to set high goals while still providing you with a structure and the tools necessary to achieve them. Having the right goals is important enough, but equally important is the capacity to attain them. What separates a tough boss from a bully is this ability to realize goals – individually or as a company. A bully is a boss that prescribes difficult goals with no clear path on how to get there; they knowingly give you work that cannot currently be completed or work that cannot be completed within a specific time frame.

It may be difficult to tell what goals are realistic and which ones are not – it certainly takes some time. Your boss may not be fully aware of your capabilities or the resources you have access to. They may be more advanced on a topic than you are, so what seems attainable to them may not be for you. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not your boss knows that goals are unattainable but continues to order they be met.

Read our previous post: Four Types of Bullying You Can Encounter at Work

Singling You Out

A tough boss is fair to everyone. They not only set high, achievable goals, but they also hold everyone to high standards. A bully on the other hand will start to single out individual performances and perhaps unnecessarily critique them. It is true that, within the context of a team or an organization, your mistake can be a learning lesson for not only you but also your coworkers. Tough leaders know this to be the case and might single you out in order to improve the company as a whole. Bullies, however, test those limits. They may belittle you and make your mistakes a joke rather than a lesson.

Another important distinction for bullies here is that their behavior is repetitive. We acknowledge the importance of having some fun while at work, but when bully-type behavior, in this case excessively condemning your work, repeats itself, it becomes more concerning.

There is something to be said as well about being singled out in a good way. Perhaps your boss recognizes the potential that you may have and holds you to a higher standard. Such behavior can actually be good for you – it may help you improve the quality of your work or obtain new roles in the future. Who can complain about that? Whether or not these higher standards shed light on positive or negative attitude towards you is not always obvious. Sometimes you may need to chat with your supervisor in order to know where he or she sees you relative to the company.

Company versus Power

Tough bosses are constantly seeking ways to improve the company as a whole. This may occasionally come at the expense of something that you did. As previously mentioned, a tough leader will recognize that a mistake you made can be used as a teaching lesson. Bullies, and bad leaders in general, will be more concerned about themselves and obtaining power. Bullies do not necessarily have to be out to attack you personally, but if doing so aids in their pursuit of power then they will not hold back.

There is no fine line between a tough boss and a bully. Often times a tough leader will exhibit bullyish behavior and vice versa. How often the behavior occurs and how often a single person is singled out are two good indicators whether your boss is a bully or just a tough leader.

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