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How you Should Respond to an Abusive Boss


No one really likes having a hostile boss, and despite a recent post suggesting that a bad boss can actually unite a team of employees, most of the time having such a bosshole is far from fun.  Sadly, such bosses are all too common however, so how should you respond to their hostility?

A recent study from researchers at Ohio State University suggests that the best approach might be to fight fire with fire.  The paper suggests that when employees fought back at their abusive boss, it made them feel less like a victim than their more passive colleagues, and they suffered less psychological distress as a result.  What’s more, they also revealed better employee engagement stats and were even more committed to their work.

"Before we did this study, I thought there would be no upside to employees who retaliated against their bosses, but that’s not what we found," the researchers say.

"The best situation is certainly when there is no hostility. But if your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating. Employees felt better about themselves because they didn’t just sit back and take the abuse."

What counts as fighting back?

Suffice to say, the authors aren’t suggesting that you resort to physical retorts against your hostile boss, but rather things such as ignoring them, feigning ignorance of whatever it was they were waffling on about and generally being far from co-operative.

"These are things that bosses don’t like and that fit the definition of hostility, but in a passive-aggressive form," the authors reveal.  "I expect that you don’t have too many employees yelling and screaming at their bosses."

About the research

Participants in the study were asked to complete two separate surveys, sent to them several months apart.  The first asked them to complete a measure of management hostility to determine how often bosses at their organisation did things to ridicule employees.  The survey also recorded how often employees fought back against the treatment in some way.

The second survey required employees to report on their general level of employee engagement, commitment to their job, level of negative feelings and so on.

The results revealed that when employees encountered a hostile boss but didn’t retaliate in some way, it resulted in significantly higher distress levels, lower job satisfaction and less commitment to the job and their employer.  When the employees fought back however, those things did not occur.

So what was it about the retaliation that made people feel better about their situation?  That was largely left unsolved, and indeed the study didn’t explore whether retaliation had negative consequences for the careers of the employees in question.

That prompted a second study to try and fill in the gaps.  This time, in addition to finding out about potential abuse at work, the researchers asked whether employees felt like a victim at work, whilst also enquiring about how their careers were going.  Were they promoted recently for instance?

The results of this second study revealed that employees who fought back were not only less likely to see themselves as some kind of victim, but their careers also showed little sign of splashback from their actions.

"In this second study, we wanted to see if employees who retaliated against their bosses also reported that their career was damaged by their actions," the authors say. "But in our survey anyway, employees didn’t believe their actions hurt their career."

The researchers suggest that this win/win situation could be caused by the renewed respect the bullying boss has for the employee that doesn’t take their abuse.  This respect then feeds itself into higher employee engagement levels and also a more promising career for the abused employee.

"There is a norm of reciprocity in our society. We have respect for someone who fights back, who doesn’t just sit back and take abuse. Having the respect of co-workers may help employees feel more committed to their organization and happy about their job," the paper concludes.

Whilst they’re at pains to point out that the first response for any organisation containing an abusive boss is to get rid of them, it does at least point to a very real and effective strategy for us to use should we encounter such a person in our own careers.

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