The impact of abusive bosses on the workplace

abusive-bossAbusive bosses are a sufficiently common aspect of working life as to have earned the moniker ‘bosshole’ from Stanford’s Bob Sutton.  Knowing how to respond to such a scenario however is often far from easy or straightforward.

A study from Ohio State University suggests that a good way of responding to an abusive boss is to be aggressive in return.  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.

To stand out or blend in

Such bold behavior is not always as easy as it seems however, and indeed it is often a challenge to get employees to speak up about ideas that might challenge the status quo, much less openly challenge an abusive boss.

A recent study attempts to shed some light on when and why people choose to remain silent at work in the face of an abusive boss or colleague.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, whilst the study mentioned at the start of the post recommended fighting fire with fire, in most instances an abusive boss creates an environment of fear.  This in turn ensures that employees withhold information in a bid to protect themselves from abuse.

Where the two studies do agree however is that silence does enable the bossholes to continue their abusive behavior.  The second study reveals that when silence is the defacto response, the more the bosshole is encouraged to continue their abusive ways.

Viral abuse

If that isn’t bad enough, a third study from researchers at Drexel University reveals that abusive behavior from managers is viral in that it encourages other employees to behave in the same way.

“If supervisors see their higher level managers engaging in abusive supervision, they may employ similar behavior but directed toward their own employees,” the researchers declare. “Therefore, we first propose abused supervisors may become abusers themselves—but of those they supervise, that is, their own employees.”

They go on to suggest that the best way to combat such incidences is to ensure that they are as isolated as possible.  They report that when abuse is relatively rare, employees tend to rally round and combat the aggressive boss, but when it’s far more widespread then the office culture can rapidly resemble Lord of the Flies.

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