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updated: 1/28/2013 8:49 AM

What to do when your boss is the bully

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Q. My boss constantly insults me at work. It's subtle, but it's real. What can I do?

A. Obviously I have no knowledge of your specific situation, but I surely have seen bullies in the workplace -- including bosses who bully those who report to them.

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If someone insults you once, it's easy to dismiss him or her as obnoxious, brush off the incident and move on. But when this kind of treatment is ongoing, moving on isn't as easy. Stopping these insults may not be within your power, especially when the perpetrator is your boss. But you can control how you react.

It can be hard to know when to respond and when to keep quiet. Going through life as a punching bag isn't healthy, but lashing out can also be stressful. Here are some tips that may help you to defend yourself enough to sleep well at night -- without jeopardizing your job:

• Be strategic. When you're insulted, don't react immediately. Think through the consequences of acting or not acting. Use timing as a strategic tool. Most of us are not quick enough to instantly come up with the perfect retort. Instead, say something later, after you've considered your response.

• Get some perspective. Sometimes it's hard to know if you're overreacting. Getting someone else's perspective can help. Or give yourself time to reflect on the situation when you're not in the heat of the moment.

• Take the high road. Respond to rude behavior with extreme politeness. This allows you to maintain your own dignity.

• Consider one response after several incidents. Instead of responding to a single incident, wait for several incidents. Then confront the boss with each of them. When you do it this way, you're talking about a pattern of behavior that it's harder for the boss to dismiss.

• Let off some (healthy) steam. Find a healthy outlet for your anger. Try martial arts, for example, or a good kick-boxing class. When I was a kid, one of my best friends had what we would call today an "anger management problem." (We just said he had a bad temper.) His parents had one car but a two-car garage, with a brick back wall. They partitioned the garage and built a counter near the front wall. On the counter, the parents put all the family's empty soft drink bottles. About twice a week my friend would stand at the counter and hurl the bottles at the back wall. (There was no recycling back then.) It helped.

• Change what you can. Don't be a passive victim. You have the power to respond.

• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com.

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