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A psychological twist on the news.

When The Boss Is Out to Get You

How can employees deal with aggressive supervisors?

How do you deal with the boss from hell?   Along with popular movies like The Devil Wears Prada and Swimming With Sharks as well as widespread experiences with aggressive supervisors, the idea of the abusive boss who denigrates and humiliates underlings has become a well-entrenched part of popular culture.   And it fits in well with the modern concept of the workplace as being harsh and unforgiving with incidents of aggression being on the rise.   This perception is certainly reflected by Bureau of Justice Statistics reports relating to workplace violence which suggest that incidents have been rising in recent years (whether involving aggressive acts directed towards supervisors or between employees).    

Along with problems linked to the current recession, interpersonal problems between supervisors and employees also lead to poor workplace morale, reduced self-esteem, health problems, reduced work time, and poor productivity.   One of the chief factors linked to these problems is supervisor aggression, i.e. how employees perceive the supervisor’s behaviour as being intentionally harmful.  Since supervisors are considered to be the primary source of workplace aggression because of bullying behaviour,  the stress that employees face can be particularly acute since it impacts on their ability to function at work as well as their own sense of self-worth.    Supervisor aggression can also cost U.S. corporations billions of dollars each year in lost productivity

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The outcome can vary depending on how employees deal with aggression, whether destructively or constructively.   A recent research project published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined different ways that employees respond to supervisor aggression.  Conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Central Florida,  employees dealing with aggression can involve:   1.  Retaliating against the aggressive supervisor (reactively aggressively to supervisor abuse, whether verbally or physically), 2. Using displaced aggression (targeting coworkers or family members rather than the source of the aggression), or 3. Using constructive problem-solving (developing positive ways of resolving aggression or otherwise working around aggressive supervisors).    The researchers also looked at the kinds of moderating influences that might affect how an employee reacts to aggression.   That includes employee locus of control (believing that they can control events happening around them), fear of retaliation,  and behavioural modeling (positive or negative role models about ways to react).

The first study involved a field experiment carried out in a classroom setting with 242 business school undergraduates (average age of 23) to see how students responded to aggressive vs. positive feedback on class assignments.   For a regular class assignment, they received their papers back with either aggressive comments (i.e., “I’m not impressed.  Maybe it’s your lack of talent”) or neutral comments (“Average”).  They were also given the opportunity to respond to the evaluation with an anonymous response or one requiring them to provide their name (fear of retaliation condition).   The second and third studies involved repeated surveys over a four-week period on hundreds of adults in regular workplace settings and was designed to test reactions to supervisor aggression in a more natural setting.  

In all three studies, having a strong locus of control, fear of retaliation, and the type of behaviour models that employees follow had a powerful influence on the way that research subjects responded to supervisor aggression.   Whether or not employees retaliate verbally or physically to aggressive supervisors often depends on situational factors (e.g., how are other employees responding,  how likely am I to be fired over this?).    Constructive responding  behaviour,  including reporting the abusive supervisor or gaining social support from fellow employees,  asking for advice, or reconciling with the supervisor,  seemed to depend on a combination of personality (locus of control) and the actual employment setting.  

So, what does this mean for employees who feel unfairly targeted by employers?   Though having a strong internal locus of control is an important part of being able to function in any workplace,  there  is no blanket solution to workplace aggression and how you respond often depends on how the people around you are responding as well.   Employees with few options for dealing with aggressive supervisors or who are made to feel that any form of retaliation will lead to their being fired may have no option except finding another job.  

And employees are not the only victims of aggressive supervisors.   Since workplace aggression can have a dramatic impact on productivity, companies should encourage open-door policies that allow employees to deal with aggression through constructive problem-solving instead of more destructive ways.     Unfortunately, the value of those sort of policies are not well-recognized by most companies and supervisor aggression seems to be on the rise despite the obvious harm this can cause.  

Overall,  developing a strong locus of control, recognizing the need for constructive problem-solving, choosing good role models and building a strong social support network with fellow employees is an essential first step for anyone in a new workplace.   These may be the best possible tools for dealing with “bosses from hell” and can help repair the damage caused by workplace aggression.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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