Duard Van der westhuizen/Thinkstock
Workers who retaliated against bullying bosses by ignoring them fared better in the workplace than researchers anticipated.

When Bosses Are Bullies, Fight Back!

Jan. 28, 2015
In a result that surprised researchers, a new study found that employees who had hostile bosses felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses by ignoring them. As a result, the employees experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.

We’ve all had or known one of “those” bosses; the boss that screams and yells and belittles employees in front of coworkers. Many abused workers slink off or quit, but the ones who fight back might have the upper hand in the long run, according to a new study.

“I thought there would be no upside to employees who retaliated against their bosses, but that’s not what we found,” said Bennett Tepper, lead author of the study and professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “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.”

Hostile bosses were identified as ones who yelled at or ridiculed employees or attempted to intimidate them. “Retaliation,” as defined in the study, usually took the form of passive-aggressive behavior by employees, who ignored the boss, acted like they didn’t know what their bosses were talking about and only put forth a half-hearted effort on the job.

“These are things that bosses don’t like and that fit the definition of hostility,” Tepper said. “I expect that you don’t have too many employees yelling and screaming at their bosses.”

"On the Exchange of Hostility with Supervisors: An Examination of Self-Enhancing and Self-Defeating Perspectives,” which recently was published online in the journal Personnel Psychology, involved data from two related studies that Tepper and fellow researchers Marie Mitchell of the University of Georgia, Dana Haggard of Missouri State University, Ho Kwong Kwan of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economic; and Heeman Park of Ohio State conducted.

In the first survey, 169 respondents completed a 15-item measure of supervisor hostility developed by Tepper in 2000. It asked participants to rate how often their supervisors did things like ridicule them and tell them that their “thoughts and feelings are stupid.” The participants reported how often they retaliated by ignoring their supervisor, playing dumb or slacked off on work.

Seven months later, the same respondents completed measures of job satisfaction, commitment to their employer, psychological distress and negative feelings. Results showed that when bosses were hostile and employees didn’t retaliate, workers had higher levels of psychological distress, less satisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their employer.

Will Retaliation Hurt Your Career?

The first study left unanswered the questions of why employees felt better if they returned their bosses’ hostility and whether retaliation hurt their careers. As a result, the researchers conducted a second study, which involved an online survey of 371 people from across the country who were surveyed three times, each three weeks apart.

“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,” Tepper said. “But in our survey anyway, employees didn’t believe their actions hurt their career.”

The first survey asked respondents many of the same questions as the first study. The second survey asked questions designed to test if the employees felt like a victim in their relationship with their boss. In addition to other questions, the third survey asked employees about career outcomes, such as whether they had been promoted and whether they were meeting their income goals.

“We have respect for someone who fights back, who doesn’t just sit back and take abuse." ~ Bennett Tepper

Results showed that employees who turned the hostility back on their bosses were less likely to identify themselves as victims – and were then less likely to report psychological distress and more likely to be satisfied with and committed to their jobs.

How can returning hostility not only help employees avoid psychological distress, but also allow them to remain committed to their employer and be more satisfied with their jobs? Although this study didn’t examine that issue directly, Tepper said he believes employees who fight back may have the admiration and respect of co-workers.

“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.”

Tepper said the message from these findings shouldn’t be that employees should automatically retaliate against a horrible boss.

“The real answer is to get rid of hostile bosses,” he said. “And there may be other responses to hostile bosses that may be more beneficial. We need to test other coping strategies.”

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