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Ask The Expert : My practice manager is making my job unbearable

This article’s expert on bullying in the workplace was Fiona McLaren.

Question on Workplace Bullying

“I really enjoy my job but my practice manager’s behaviour makes me wonder if I can carry on.  She constantly puts me down and criticises everything I do – both personally and professionally.  I know that my work is of a satisfactory standard as the previous practice manager always gave me good appraisals and the doctors in the practice still praise my work.  Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks she’s fine as she’s pleasant to them and makes sure all her nasty comments are made when we’re alone in the office, so it’s my word against hers.  I now dread going to work in the morning, is leaving my only option?”



Bullying behaviour is nasty and unwarranted.  It’s also ‘difficult’ in the sense that – as you say – it can often be one person’s word against another.  If the targets of bullying don’t take some form of action against it, it can also result in stress, depression and anxiety, not to mention erosion of self-confidence – all of which can affect people for a long time afterwards.

Your question: is leaving your only option?  Being bullied can often make you feel isolated and trapped, and believing there are options can be difficult.  Below are some things I’d like you to think about when you’re trying to find your way out of this horrible situation (and it is very common indeed these days).

It’s often useful to try to analyse what’s going on – difficult when you’re caught up in the emotion of the situation.  What do you think has given rise to this? Perhaps the Practice Manager is fairly recent and feels threatened by your longer-term relationship with the doctors and the regard you say they have for you.  Equally, bullies often target particular individuals because they think they won’t retaliate.  Trying to gain another perspective on the situation may make you feel it’s less personal.  Everyone will tell you it’s not your problem, it’s the bully’s problem.  Also, it’s an organisational problem – someone in the organisation is allowing this to happen. Trying to see it as something less personal may be empowering.

You do have options, but with choices come consequences. It’s one thing to say you could leave, but maybe your confidence has been affected and it’s not a great time to put yourself on the job market.  Maybe you should consider leaving only as a fall-back position.  Possible alternatives are:

  • fighting back and trying to involve her in repairing the damage; making yourself bully-proof and being a survivor
  • taking more formal action, either through your policies/procedures or by legal challenge

Deciding to tackle individual incidents might be worth a try.  You know your work is good.  Use that as armour.

What is it she finds fault with?  Does she make vague, critical remarks?  Supposing she said something like “you’re always getting that wrong”.  You might respond with,  “I don’t believe I am.  What makes you say that?”  You might need to practise doing something like this: your voice needs to be even and pleasant – make it sound like a genuine question that you’re interested to hear about.  Making her justify her comments might surprise her.

A handy little formula for dealing with situations that you don’t like is DESC: which takes you away from the sort of “You’re making me feel….” kind of conversation which ends up in an anger spiral of accusation and defence and makes things worse.  Always using the PULL skill of asking questions, instead of responding to what she says with a defensive statement, may make her think twice before she says anything.

Ask for a 1:1, catch-up – or just do it shortly after an incident.  Using DESC:

Describe the thing you don’t like :       I am concerned when you say x, make comments like y…

Explain how you feel/take ownership:   I feel upset because it shows a lack of respect…”

Specify what you’d like to happen: If I get something wrong, I’d prefer it, if we could discuss objectively and try to resolve it.”

Consequences, either way:  If you will do this, it will mean we can work together more professionally / productively… or, if not,  I’ve been keeping a note of the things you’ve mentioned,  and perhaps we will need to sit down with Doctor/Manager X and discuss it further….

Please note, no mention of bullying at this stage.  Again, you may need to practise this to ensure you can do it calmly, evenly and without interruption.  Incidentally, you should, in any event, keep a note of all the instances, date, time, circumstances, how they made you feel etc., and written as neutrally as you can manage.

However, if you want to escalate things, then be more specific :

D “I am concerned when you bully me like this…(and give details)

Apart from the fact that it is not something the practice encourages, it signifies that you have no respect for me, and that  is upsetting, and I feel, unwarranted

S  I’d like us to sit down and discuss this openly so that we can get our working relationship on the right professional footing

C  If not, then I will have no option but to follow the practice’s Grievance Procedure …”

In my experience, people accused of bullying often claim to be astonished that their behaviour has been seen as bullying.  Often, people are genuinely upset that they have caused distress.  The fact that you are facing up to this person may make her think twice about continuing.

And it does take enormous courage to face up to the bully in either of these ways.  But how empowering if you make even a little progress!

It may also depend on how long this has been going on: it may have gone beyond the point of your own actions in trying to repair things.  You may not even want to repair the damage, in which case, is the practice big enough for you to transfer to another role where you don’t have contact with her?  For many reasons, this just may not be practical.

How supportive are the colleagues who find her pleasant? Sadly, colleagues often don’t want to be involved.  You say that the doctors are positive about your work.  Could you have a private chat with one to get advice or support in confronting the bully?  It may help if you don’t feel you’re on your own.

If you decide to try to deal with this situation, you may have to try to develop more emotional detachment – mentally shrug it off and remind yourself she’s alone in her opinions.  Keep an ‘achievements journal’ – a note of all the good things you’ve done in that job, what positive things people have said, and – importantly – what you feel about your performance over the time you’ve been there.  If you’re feeling low or uncertain, consult it and remind yourself that ‘you’re ok’!

The backstop – leaving… You alone know the likely effect that will have on you, your family, your financial position and your future employability.  How might you explain why you’ve left?  Will she be the one to write your reference?

If you decide the only way is out, make sure you do it from a position of strength, so that you leave feeling you’re not being forced out.  Make sure your skills and training are up to date; you need to face the job market with confidence.

Beyond dreading going to work, you don’t say if this is affecting your health or wellbeing.  Don’t forget, there’s always recourse to the law if things get really bad.  You may well be a long way from making a personal injury claim or claiming unfair constructive dismissal, but the law is there to protect you.  Again, the long term consequences of legal action may feel unpalatable, but it’s there as an option.

Only you really know how you feel about this situation and what you are prepared to put up with or challenge.  Whatever it is, good luck!

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