Study: Avoiding an Abusive Boss Not the Best Strategy

Jan. 11, 2012
No one like a bully, and employees stuck with an abusive boss may understandably do all they can to avoid contact with that boss. New research reveals, however, that dealing with an abusive boss through avoidance can be detrimental to an employee's well-being, while initiating direct communication with the boss is a more helpful strategy.

The study, conducted by professors at the University of Haifa's Social Welfare and Health Sciences, focused not on the behavior or impact of abusive bosses, but rather how employees cope with such treatment.

"Abusive supervision is highly distressing for employees. Our study shows that the strategies being used by employees to cope with the stress caused by such behavior do not lead to the most positive outcomes," said Dana Yagil, Ph.D., who headed the study.

Researchers studied 300 participating employees and examined the following five types of strategies they used for coping with the stress of abusive treatment:

1. Directly communicating with the abusive supervisor to discuss the problems;
2. Using forms of ingratiation – e.g., doing favors, using flattery and compliance;
3. Seeking support from others;
4. Avoiding contact with the supervisor; and
5. Reframing – i.e., mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

The study found that abusive treatment from a superior was most strongly associated with avoiding contact – disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible – and seeking social support. Employees were least likely to use the strategy of direct communication to deal with the abusive behavior.

The popular categories of avoidance and seeking support, however, resulted in the employees experiencing negative emotions. Actually communicating directly with the supervisor, the least-cited tactic, nonetheless was most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.

"It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact with an abusive boss to a minimum," said Yagil. "However, this strategy further increases the employee's stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor."

Researchers suggested that managers should be on the lookout for signs of employee detachment and explore the possibility that those employees might consider the manager's behavior abusive or offensive.

The study was published in the published in the American Psychological Association’s International Journal of Stress Management.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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