How Do Employees Respond to Abusive Bosses?


Most suffer in silence. Some get violent. Others overcome the emotional exhaustion by quietly altering how they work


We have a complicated relationship with abusive bosses.

On one hand, there is nothing warm and fuzzy about supervisors who yell at employees, give them the silent treatment or put them down in front of co-workers. The bulk of research over the past 20 years links such behaviour to psychological distress, higher turnover and lower productivity.

Many employees who have the misfortune of being on the receiving end—one estimate puts it at 10 per cent of workers—end up questioning their self-worth, struggling with concentration and suffering physical ailments such as gastrointestinal pain, headaches, breathing difficulties and poor sleep. The total cost to organizations is estimated at almost $24 billion in the U.S. alone (where litigation costs are a major factor).

Then again, some abusers may not actually intend to cause harm. They may be trying to motivate employees by mimicking the behaviour of celebrated bosses such as Steve Jobs—a genius-tyrant both loved and reviled. And, as the reaction to bosses like Jobs illustrates, abuse is subjective. What is considered humiliating, rude or coercive by one person may be considered inspiring or mere background noise by another.

These perceptions matter. One research team showed that when employees believe the abusive supervisor is motivated to cause harm, abusive supervision is more likely to cause anger, which turns into counterproductive and deviant behaviours that can bring down the entire team. But when employees perceive the abusive boss is motivated to improve performance, abusive supervision is more likely to evoke guilt and the desire to address personal shortcomings.

Suffer in silence or fight back?

How victims respond to supervisory abuse is complicated as well. The likeliest response seems to be to suffer in silence, since it’s low risk and can hardly be detected. A related response is to hoard information: One recent study showed that targeted individuals are more prone to knowledge-hiding behaviour.

For years, researchers have argued that subordinates opt for these avoidance-coping behaviours rather than retaliate against abusive bosses. After all, they depend on supervisors for their jobs and advancement within the company. The cost of retaliation seems too high. But is it? A newly published study presents a more disturbing picture: that not only can abused employees retaliate in kind, the retaliation can spiral into violence.

The study, conducted by Zhanna Lyubykh and Nick Turner of Haskayne School of Business, Julian Barling of Smith School of Business and Kathryne Dupré of Carleton University, set out to determine whether aggression from supervisors triggered retaliatory responses by employees. And, if so, was the retaliation of a similar type and intensity to the original abuse—being rude to the supervisor or yelling back—or was it more intense?

Reviewing data collected from 254 people, they found that an intensification of negative behaviours is as likely as in-kind retaliation. Twenty-nine respondents admitted they had engaged in one act of violence against their supervisors in the past 12 months, 16 respondents said they had engaged in violence against their supervisors twice in the past year, and two respondents engaged in more than two instances of supervisor-directed violence.

The study suggests that “abusive supervision has the potential to initiate the spiral effects of aggressive behaviours, including acts of both non-physical aggression and more extreme acts of aggression,” the researchers conclude. “It is critical that researchers and practitioners pay more attention to understanding how the initial triggers such as abusive supervision can be minimized.”

Redemption via voodoo doll

The argument has been made that perhaps retaliation against supervisor abuse (short of violence) serves a useful purpose. One research team, for example, ran experiments in which participants primed as abused employees were asked to stab a voodoo doll representing their bad boss. Apparently, the participants reported a greater sense of justice served, alleviating the negative effect of abusive supervision.

Symbolic retaliation may be soothing for some but there are other more proven techniques employees can use to deal with an abusive boss when they don’t feel they can confront the problem directly. Job crafting—proactively changing one’s job to make it more meaningful—has been shown to be an effective way to overcome the emotional exhaustion of dealing with an abusive supervisor.

Job crafting can involve tweaking the tasks that make up your job, altering the amount of time devoted to them or dropping those that become redundant. It can also involve engaging with different co-workers or adopting a new mindset on the work you perform (for example, volunteering to improve the efficiency of protocols or procedures). Developing job-related skills is one job-crafting behaviour that has been shown to be particularly effective at countering the exhaustion from abusive supervision.

Of course, abusive supervision does not happen in a vacuum. If employees perceive that their department tolerates or tacitly rewards aggressive behaviour, they are more likely to view withdrawal or aggressive retribution as justified responses. The opposite is also true: The study documenting the potential for aggressive retaliation found that the probability of retaliation against an abusive boss was lower when employees perceived their organization to have zero tolerance for workplace aggression.

The playbook for organizations should be clear. It should include explicit policies on workplace aggression that define what is and is not acceptable behaviour—and the willingness to act when those policies are flouted. It may also involve training to help supervisors recognize when they are selectively abusing certain employees—such as poor performers who continually slip up or high performers who may engender envy—and find alternate means to deal with challenging situations.

Leaving it to bosses to just “figure it out” with their employees is a high-risk, low-reward response to abusive supervision. Steve Jobs’ longtime assistant has a sobering lesson: “Steve’s downfall as a leader was that . . . he was inattentive to the well-being of his people. He challenged and stretched people outside of their comfort zone, making them better and helping them fulfil their highest potential, but often at the expense of their health.”