Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, an illustration for the 1898 Swedish edition by James Mahoney
Ideas for Leaders #488

Bullying Bosses: Don’t Just Take It, Fight Back

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Key Concept

Employees victimized by a bullying boss should not accept to be victims. While they may think that fighting back will make matters worse, a new study shows that employees who refuse to accept the abuse feel better about themselves, their jobs, and their career prospects than those who accept their ‘victim identity’.

Idea Summary

Abusive behaviour from bosses, what researchers call ‘downward hostility’, has a negative psychological effect on employees, undermining job satisfaction and the commitment to the employee. Such hostility also causes psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression.

Persistent hostility leads employees to adopt a ‘victim identity’, the negative self-image that one is destined to be a target of abuse and attacks.

However, new research shows not all victims take on this negative identity. In other words, there is a difference between victimization — being a target — and the victim identity. Indeed, many employees respond to abuse and hostile behaviour from the boss with hostile behaviour of their own.

New research confirms that by refusing the negative self-image of victims and instead fighting back, these employees actually enhance their own self-image as people who refuse to be weak and vulnerable. Instead of causing the psychological distress of the victim identity, downward hostility — if met with upward hostility in return — has little or no impact on the employee’s psychological state of mind. Fighting back, it seems, helps employees avoid the loss of job satisfaction and the reduced commitment that usually results from an abusive employer.

This insight runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that returning the hostility of superiors is self-defeating. Proponents of the self-defeating theory argue that, first, instead of quelling any anger, fighting back against a hostile boss only keeps employees fixated on the negative, resulting in a constant and growing anger. The second argument is that fighting back only escalates the hostility: the boss becomes even more abusive, the employee pushes back even more strongly, and the relationship becomes even more toxic.

The results of the study reveal, however, that neither ‘negative rumination’ nor ‘escalating hostility’ (to use the psychological terms) occur with upward hostility. Instead, when the employee fights hostility with hostility, instead of acting like a victim, he or she feels better, not worse, about work and the workplace.

But perhaps there are other, more long-term consequences for employees who push back against abusive bosses. To explore this question further, the research team conducted a second study that examined the career satisfaction and career expectations of employees who fought back. In other words, were employees who refused to be victims satisfied with their progress in their careers, and did they foresee satisfying progress in the future? Once again, the research revealed the beneficial effects of ‘not taking it’. The second study showed that both career satisfaction and career expectations were higher among employees who refused to adopt a victim identity than those who put their heads down and accepted the abuse.

Business Application

The results of these two studies might seem counterintuitive. Will not employees who fight back only “make matters worse”? In truth, it appears that standing up and refusing to accept the abuse silently is self-enhancing rather than self-defeating — that is, it reduces the psychological stress of the abuse and keeps employees more satisfied with their jobs and their careers.

That said, organizations would not want to encourage employees to use hostility as a tool for reducing victim self-perceptions. Although hostility appears to be personally self-enhancing, it does undermine organizational effectiveness. This has been proven consistently in other studies. The key, therefore, is to get employees to use strategies that are self-enhancing and organization-enhancing.

Organizations can use the results of these studies not to encourage hostility, but to offer employees alternative ways to avoid victimization. For example:

  • Explain to employees that accepting hostility and abuse in an effort to avoid trouble is self-defeating: employees will only feel progressively worse about their jobs and their career prospects.
  • Give employees an alternative way to ‘fight back’, by offering clear paths of recourse in the case of downward hostility — for example, an employee advocate structure or process that employees can turn to in the case of problems.

Instil a culture in which employees feel that they can use such a structure — or, if there is no formal process in place, that they can approach the boss’s boss — without fear of retribution.

The core lesson that employees and employers can take from these studies is that that adopting a victim mindset is not a solution; in the face of hostility from above, employees must be proactive. It is in the long-term interest of the organization that such proactivity takes the form of a formal process that leads to satisfactory outcomes for the employee. The other alternatives — victimized employees who hate their jobs, a workplace that becomes a battle-zone, or, finally, employees who choose to leave — represents a loss for the company.

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