'Disengaging from abusive boss is worst strategy'

New study sheds light on strategies employees should utilize when dealing with a difficult boss.

January 4, 2012 22:45
2 minute read.
Disengaging from abusive boss is worst strategy

Disgruntled employee 311. (photo credit: (Nick White/Thinkstock)


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Disgruntled employees who think their bosses are abusive shoot themselves in the foot if they avoid any contact with them, according to new stress research from the University of Haifa.

The study, conducted by Prof. Dana Yagil with Prof. Hasida Ben-Zur and Inbal Tamir, of the faculty of social welfare and health sciences, queried 300 workers on whether, and how often, they suffered abuse by their employer.

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The study assessed the psychological mechanisms employees use to cope with the stress of abusive treatment from a supervisor and how effective those tools are in terms of employee well-being.

Confronting an abusive boss is easier said than done, the researchers said. Workers coping with the stress of verbal abuse prefer to avoid direct communication even though it would be the most effective tactic in terms of emotional well-being, they said.

“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 Yagil.

Earlier studies have examined the effect of abusive supervision on employee performance, but the new study set out to determine the effect of the different coping strategies on employee well-being.


The team examined five types of strategies to cope with the stress factor of abusive treatment – directly communicating with the abusive supervisor to discuss the problems; using forms of ingratiation, such as doing favors, using flattery and compliance; seeking support from others; avoiding contact with the supervisor; and “reframing,” or mentally restructuring, the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

The participants were asked to rate the frequency of experiencing ridicule, invasion of privacy, rudeness and lying.

They were also asked to rate the frequency of engaging in each of 25 strategies that belong to the five categories.

For example: “I tell the supervisor directly that he/she must not treat me like that” (direct communication category); “I support the supervisor in matters that are important to him/her, so that he/she will see I am on his/her side” (ingratiation); “I try to have the least possible contact with the supervisor” (avoidance of contact); “I relieve myself by talking to other people about the supervisors behavior” (support-seeking); and “I remind myself that there are more important matters in my life” (reframing).

The study found that abusive treatment from a superior was most strongly associated with disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible, and to seeking social support.

Abusive supervision was least strongly associated with the strategy of direct communication.

Communication with the supervisor, which employees do less, was the strategy 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, but this strategy further increases the employee’s stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor.”

She concluded that managers should be alert to signs of employee detachment, as it might indicate that their own behavior is being considered offensive by those employees.

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