transcript of “The Yelling Boss” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 25)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “The Yelling Boss”.

Alison: Today we’re going to talk about yelling at work, specifically what to do when you have a boss who yells. Today’s guest has a boss who yells for minutes on end – not necessarily at anyone in particular, just about his frustration in general – and no surprise, it’s pretty unpleasant. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, I’m happy to be here.

Alison: Thanks for joining us. In the letter that you sent into me, you said that your boss will yell when things aren’t going according to plan and he doesn’t really yell at specific people, but just sort of yells about his frustration and then he eventually calms down and solves whatever the problem is. And what spurred you to write into me is that you have a coworker who’s also a close friend and a survivor of domestic abuse, and she has told you that his yelling really scares her and makes her feel unsafe. And I think you were thinking if your boss knew that, maybe he’d make more of an effort to keep it under control, but you’re not really at liberty to share your coworker’s history. Am I getting that right?

Guest: Yes, that’s right. When he yells, I don’t enjoy it, but it’s something that I can deal with. And he is very concerned with making sure that we all feel comfortable at work in a lot of other areas, and when I’ve asked him to change other things that he does, he’s been receptive. I’m just not sure that he understands the full consequences of the yelling and if he did, I think he might be more open to changing his behavior and might remember to change his behavior because it is such an impactful consequence.

Alison: That’s so interesting that he is concerned in other areas about making sure people are comfortable, but then this is happening.

Tell me more about the yelling itself. It’s not at people, but it’s around people. What kinds of things can bring it on?

Guest: He often yells about people who are not present if he’s frustrated with them, and it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t have a good face-to-face relationship later. But if someone is doing something that’s difficult for him to deal with, he may yell about it for a few minutes to another group of people. That sometimes makes me wonder if he says things about me in other contexts as well. And sometimes it’s just if he learns about something difficult, if he gets an email about something that he knows will be tough to deal with, whoever’s around just gets all of his feelings in not the most pleasant delivery.

Alison: That sounds horrible. And what happens, how does this play out? He gets frustrated and he starts yelling, and what happens with the people who are bystanders for this? Is everyone just kind of uncomfortably sitting in silence waiting for it to pass, or are people trying to soothe him, or what typically happens?

Guest: It really depends on the situation. Often if it’s a large group, it may start out as a conversation and as he gets more and more upset, everyone else will slowly quiet down and as you said, just kind of sit uncomfortably in silence until he finishes. And he always does finish and calm down and then we go on to talk about something else, but sometimes in those situations I have been hyper aware, especially of the coworker who I know is affected in ways the rest of us may not be. And sometimes if it’s in a smaller setting, the people in the room if there are only a couple of us will soothe him a little bit and just nod along. I have occasionally tried to push back on something if I felt like it was more than I should hear about another person, but there’s not much space to talk to him or do that or do anything that’s not relatively in agreement with him.

Alison: I want to say first, before we get into like the actual advice piece of this, I really want to emphasize: yelling is just not okay at work. It’s abusive. And that’s true even if it’s not directed at you. There are some very rare fields where you know going in that yelling might be a part of it. Restaurant kitchens are a notorious example of this and actually we just had a guest on who talked a little bit about that because she was a chef. But in general, for most workplaces, yelling is just not okay and it’s really an abuse of power. I say that because can you imagine someone behaving like this around your boss if they reported to him or your boss doing this around people he reported to? If you wanted to lose your cool and start yelling and screaming, I doubt your boss would just sit there calmly and take it. And I’m betting that you don’t see him do it in front of people who have power over him, because it’s the power dynamics here that make him think he can get away with it. Not necessarily that he’s consciously thinking that, but if he wouldn’t do it in front of his own boss or in front of the president of the company, then on some level he does know that he can get away with it because he has power over you and that is pretty abusive.

And I also want to say, it’s so reasonable that your coworker is triggered by this. I would be triggered by it and I think really all of you – regardless of what personal histories you may or may not have – all of you do have standing to object to this. There could be other people at work too who have histories that you don’t know about that also make it deeply upsetting for them. And frankly, it can be deeply upsetting even when there isn’t a history in play, because being around someone who is yelling and out of control – and yelling is a sign that the person is out of control – is legitimately awful for a lot of people and it creates an environment of fear.

I don’t want you to feel like you need to be able to point to a reason that is “good enough” to ask him to stop. I do totally get why you feel like it might get to him at a more visceral level if he understood, “Hey, there’s someone with a history of abuse here who’s really freaking out when this happens,” but I just want to stress that you don’t need to find a reason that’s good enough. It’s enough that he just shouldn’t be doing it, period.

I want to ask you too – you had mentioned that in other ways he’s pretty supportive and caring. Tell me more about that. Does this seem really out of character? Or I guess, just tell me a bit more about what he’s like aside from this.

Guest: He likes to have a very open, communicative relationship with all of his employees and I feel like if there’s ever a disagreement on just about anything, no matter what my official level of authority over it is, he’s comfortable with me telling him. I generally have a very quiet and polite presence in the office, and I don’t think that I have ever talked to him in a way that he finds upsetting. And so maybe I have a unique perspective, but in general, he tells us regularly that he wants to hear from us. He actively tries to break down that power dynamic that only certain people can give feedback on certain things and he knows that that leads to better work on our team. But I think you’re right that the reason that I’m not as comfortable bringing the issue of the yelling to him is that that’s a power dynamic he hasn’t broken down. That he does, from his position of power, know that he can get away with this with us and that he hasn’t in the way that he specifically addressed other things specifically addressed this – and that on the contrary, he has shown us that he’s very willing to fully exploit this power.

Alison: Yeah, that makes perfect sense that you’re uncomfortable with it. Have you ever touched on this issue with your boss before? Have you ever tried to talk to him about it?

Guest: I have, as I mentioned before, occasionally pushed back in the moment just a little bit, and sometimes that leads to him apologizing, but still taking a few minutes to calm down from the yelling and frustration. I’ve also, when the content of the yelling focuses on a specific person in a way that I’m uncomfortable with, I will sometimes tell him that, and again he listens sort of slowly. He acknowledges what I said and then says a couple of more things and then calms down, but it hasn’t stuck in any way. I haven’t been able to say anything that has gotten him out of the ongoing behavior,

Alison: I do think it’s potentially worth trying to talk to him about it, particularly because it sounds like he actually has tried to be aware of power issues and people feeling comfortable with dissent in the past, and maybe just has a real blind spot in this area. So, if you’re comfortable with it, my hunch is that he doesn’t really get the impact that this has on people around him when he does it. I think you could go to him and say, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize that you have a tendency to yell and it’s really difficult to be around. I’ve heard people say that they find it scary. It’s creating fear on our team. People don’t expect to be around yelling at work and it’s making things really uncomfortable.” Could you imagine saying something like that?

Guest: I think I could probably say something like that to him in a situation very removed from one of the times that he is frustrated. I’m not sure that he is completely aware of the impacts and of some of the workplace norms around yelling. I’m not sure that he sees it in the way that I do and the way that you do, as sort of a baseline unacceptable behavior, and I’m not exactly sure how I can drive home to him that it is really that important.

Alison: In a lot of situations it would be enough to say, “Hey, this is really freaking people out and unsettling them. Can you tone it down?”

Guest: I do like the language that you’re using around it creating fear and freaking people out, because that speaks to the level of the impact without speaking to the specifics of the sensitive personal histories that people might have.

Alison: Yeah, and I think too, if you’re nervous about doing it… well first let me say, I think you’re right when you said earlier you wouldn’t want to do it close to the moment where it had happened. I think that instinct is exactly right. You want to do it at a time where he’s calm, in a receptive-seeming mood. But I think if you’re worried about bringing it up at all, you’d be doing him a service by bringing it to his attention, because there’s a not small chance that at some point this is going to come back to bite him in some way. You know, someone above him will hear about it and it’ll reflect badly on him, or over time it could just give him a terrible reputation. Like if he’s up for a promotion or an outside job and they happen to hear that he’s a yeller, that can hurt his chances. I mean, that’s not guaranteed, of course – obviously there are yellers out there who attained pretty high positions despite their yelling – but it does have the potential to hold him back. Especially at healthy companies that don’t tolerate this kind of thing.

And you know, you could also potentially encourage your coworkers to have similar conversations with him. No one needs to share anything about their personal history if they don’t want to. But it could be that if he’s hearing this from a few of you, that it will make him reconsider what he’s doing and maybe rein in his behavior. And actually, speaking of working with your coworkers to address this – I don’t know if this is the right idea or not. This is not for everyone. It wouldn’t be the right solution in every situation. But one option to just have in your head is that it’s possible that a group of you could even decide that you’re not going to stay there when this is happening. There’s strength in numbers, and so one option to think about is whether a group of you could decide that the next time he starts yelling, you’re all going to very politely say something like, “Hey, we really don’t want to be yelled at. We’re happy to continue this conversation later without the yelling. But right now, we don’t feel comfortable staying here,” and getting up and leaving. And again, it’s not going to be the right option for everyone, but it’s something to have in your head or maybe even just talk to your coworkers about.

Guest: I think that’s a good idea. I have, in the past, left the room myself. It’s not a possibility every time that he was yelling, but there have been occasions where I’ve been able to do that and so I can see that working, especially if we communicate with him about it in the way that you’re saying. And I do think also that hearing from multiple people would help to drive the impact home in the way that I’m looking for.

Alison: So that might be the way to go — several of you have one-on-one conversations with him and use language like “fear-based” and “freaking people out.” And you know, maybe he’ll think you guys are being too sensitive and that’s fine. He can think that. You just want him to change the behavior.

But I do think even if you don’t arrange for a group of your coworkers to all say, “We don’t want to be yelled at and we’re going to leave the room,” it’s okay for you to say, “I don’t want to be yelled at so I’m going to leave, but I’m happy to continue this conversation later.” Or even, “I can’t really process what you’re saying when you’re yelling.” I mean it’s okay to push back in the moment and not everyone will feel like they are comfortable doing that or feel safe doing that, but have that sort of language in your head as an option in case you ever want to use it.

The other things I would say: if talking doesn’t get through to him, the biggest thing is to not take it personally. It’s not about you and even if you are the one who precipitated the yelling somehow, it’s still not about you – because good managers don’t need to yell because they have more effective tools that are available to them. Make sure that this isn’t getting into your head, that you’re not taking it personally.

And the last point I wanted to make is sometimes it’s an option to escalate it. You might have a higher up who would be horrified to hear that this was happening, especially if it’s happening repeatedly. Or you might have a good HR department who would want to know about this and would intervene. And it’s not going to be the case in every office, so you do have to know your workplace to know if that would be worth doing, but it’s something to think about.

But thinking through all of this, I would start with a direct conversation with him if you feel equipped to do that and encouraging your colleagues to do something similar.

Guest: I think you’re right. I think there is strength in numbers here. I’m not particularly confident in my ability on my own to drive home to him why it’s important not to behave this way at the office, but I am looking for strategies to convey that to him with tools that I might not have alone. And I think the language about fear and creating an unsafe space and also the strength in numbers will be useful. Sometimes I do feel like he has developed this habit to the point that nothing will get through and I don’t know how effective it can be to continue these strategies on a long term basis, but removing myself from the situation seems like a potentially useful solution to that. Because then even if he doesn’t stop, I and we all have a way of protecting ourselves.

Alison: Absolutely, and you could even say to him – it depends on what your relationship is like with him, but based on what you’ve said, it sounds like he’s not bad at taking feedback and hearing from people pretty directly – so potentially you could even say to him at some point, “The yelling really freaks me out. I have trouble staying in there when it’s happening. I just want to give you a heads up preemptively that if it does start feeling out of control, I am probably going to excuse myself from the room, and I’m not walking out on you. I’m not being insubordinate. I’m happy to resume the conversation later. I just can’t do it with the yelling.”

Guest: I actually think he would take that really well because especially when he is in a calmer mood, he’s very concerned with the feelings of his employees and I think he would see that as something we were doing for ourselves while he was practicing this habit that he’s just had some trouble breaking.

Alison: So that might be the thing that you have in your head. If you do the direct conversation, your colleagues do the direct conversation, and it’s still happening – at that point you’ve laid the groundwork for having this conversation with him, so that might be where you go next.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: Good. I hope this helps. I think this is really tough and this is one of those things where there might not be a way to get a perfect solution, but there might be things that you can do that will help make it more liveable while you’re working with him.

Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.