“My friend’s boss is being really mean to her, and I don’t know how to help. What can I do?”

I always reserve fifteen minutes for Q&A at the end of my Good Fight keynotes. Hearing the audience’s powerful questions in their own words (and often through crackly emotional voices) helps me empathize with how difficult it is to have healthy conflict in organizations. It keeps things real.

As good as those questions are, the ones that come after the session, in quiet corners, without an audience of 400, are the most telling, the most difficult, and the most important. I have perfected slow-rolling my exit to make more time for those questions. That’s when the bullying boss question came.

How to Help a Teammate Who’s Being Treated Badly

As I said to the man who asked the question, the first and most important thing you can do for your colleague having a rough time is notice. So many of us are overwhelmed with our workloads and absorbed in our own micro dramas that we’re oblivious to the struggles of our teammates. So just the fact that he noticed his teammate and cared enough to ask for help was exceptional.

I then gave him several other approaches to employ.

What To Say to Your Colleague

Notice and Validate

If no one is saying anything about the bad behavior inflicted on your teammate, they might be worried that they’re overreacting, that everyone thinks they deserve it, or that people just don’t care.

As they say in the airports, “If you see something, say something.” It can be as simple as “I didn’t like how David talked to you in that meeting,” followed by, “How did that land with you,” or “Are you ok?” Be the safe place for the person to share their experience and seek support and advice.

Listen and Empathize

Once you’ve opened the gates, you might get a flood, and you might get a trickle; it depends on how emotional they feel and how much they trust you. Don’t pepper them with questions. Instead, let them set the pace and encourage it mostly with open body language and the occasional “wow” or “that sucks.”

As you listen, try not to superimpose your values and feelings onto their experience. Instead, see if you can help them find the words to describe their feelings. Often, having a sounding board to reflect their thoughts will be enough to name the feeling and reduce its hold on them. For example, try saying things like, “Sounds like you’re deflated because Amanda is always criticizing your work in front of the team. Is that what it is?”

Question and Reframe

Once you understand what they’re feeling, you might help them challenge how they’re thinking about a situation in a way that will make it easier to cope. For example, you might hear them say, “I’m not up for this job,” or “I’m so thick; why can’t I get this?”

When your teammate makes generic statements about their worth, you can ask questions to help them get perspective. For example, you could ask about the frequency, scope, or severity of the boss’ behavior in case your colleague is overstating the issue. For instance, you could say, “How often has that happened,” or “Which sections did she not like?” or “What words did he use, exactly?” If the frequency, scope, or severity seem to be out of sync with your teammate’s reactions, you might try reframing.

When you reframe in this circumstance, you help your colleague go from what feels like a massive, enduring gap in who they are to a smaller, situational gap in how they perform. “It sounds like this is the first time you’ve had feedback like this. What was different about this time?” If they respond with squishy statements like, “I’m not creative enough,” translate their messages into something like, “This time, you didn’t go far enough from our current branding.” Changing your behavior feels surmountable. Changing who you are does not.

Feedback and Coach

Is your colleague getting ready to respond to the nasty boss? Offer to hear their dry run. If they’re submitting the second draft of work that the boss rejected the first time, go over it for them with the boss’ preferences in mind. Make suggestions and propose tweaks that might get them a better reaction.

If your colleague wants to give feedback to their bullying or belittling manager, encourage them to share it with you so you can help them process their emotions and prepare to deliver the message as confidently as possible.

Get Directly Involved

Block and Tackle

If you’re in the room when your colleague’s boss is treating them poorly, you have the option to step in. How you intervene will depend on exactly what the boss is doing. If they shut the person out of the discussions, you can say, “I’d love to hear what Tracey has to say about this.” If they misinterpret or denigrate what the person says, you can add credence by saying, “I think Tracey makes a good point. I have seen the same thing with my clients this month.” If the boss makes sweeping criticisms, help by seeking more objective feedback such as, “You’d like the presentation to be more creative. What types of things could Tracey include that would feel creative to you?”

One caveat. It won’t help your teammate if these overtures burn your bridges with the manager, so only block and tackle if you are in a safe position to do so.

Alert and Inform

If the boss’ menacing behavior continues, you can also be of great help in alerting others in your organization to the problem. Whom you turn to will depend on the situation, but you could quietly share your concerns with a team member who has credibility with the boss and ask for their help bolstering your colleague’s reputation. “I’m worried that Tracey is getting an unfair rep. How could we support her?”

Alternatively (or maybe additionally), you could seek help from human resources by noting objectively what you’ve seen from the boss and how you’ve tried to help your colleague. Then ask, “I don’t know what to do next. What’s your advice for her and me?”

Connect and Refer

It’s possible that your colleague won’t be able to bear the poor treatment from their boss, and you won’t be able to make a dent in the problem. Sometimes it’s the best choice to get out of a toxic situation. In that case, the most helpful thing you can do is stay in touch with the person and support them as they seek a new job. You will have lots of valuable insight to help them understand their strengths and the situations they might want to avoid.

Then watch for opportunities and make connections within your network to help them reestablish. Leaving a job because you were treated poorly by a boss can destroy your mojo, so knowing that you will stand by them will do wonders for their confidence.

I’m grateful to the audience member who asked this question. The woman in question certainly has the teammate she deserves; hopefully she’ll get a boss she deserves too.


Additional Resources

How to handle a toxic boss

Managing Up as a United Team

Everybody Hurts

Video: Should I Leave My Toxic Workplace?