How to Get Abusive Bosses to Stop Picking on Defenseless Employees

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A recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology confirms what many people suspect: Abusive bosses target employees with low self-esteem and a lack of office allies. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey runs down the study and offers some practical tips for employees caught in or witnessing abusive workplace relationships. Based on her advice, it seems like a lot of the same social dynamics that lead to bullying in schools also make some workers’ lives miserable.

Davey sums up the depressing findings:

Employees with poor core-self evaluations (an aggregate measure related to self-esteem and sense of control) and poor coworker support were more likely to experience aggressive behavior from their supervisor (belittling, blaming, etc.). That is, the weakest employees receive the brunt of a bad manager’s abuse.

The propensity to target aggression at the people least likely to retaliate was exacerbated when the supervisor was in a stressful or threatening situation (in this case post-downsizing). Supervisors under stress did not become universally more aggressive, just more aggressive toward the weakest members of their teams.

Employees with low core self-evaluations did not respond to the abuse directly. Instead, they decreased their effort on their job duties and reduced their discretionary effort on other tasks that support the team or the organization.

Davey proceeds to offer some potential remedies, and it’s striking how much they mirror new, norm-changing efforts to end bullying like the one I wrote about in my article about “raising awareness” yesterday.

The main idea is that workplace abuse is fueled by the fact that bosses don’t pay any social price for their behavior and may wrongly perceive others around them as approving of it. When victims or bystanders step in and (assertively but non-aggressively) push back, explaining to the boss that he or she is acting unfairly and in a manner the rest of the office disapproves of, the social cost of the behavior is jacked up, and the perpetrator will realize he or she can’t fully get away with treating the weak employee like a punching bag anymore.

Any one person can disrupt an unhealthy dynamic by behaving in a new way,” writes Davey. “It takes the willingness to see and acknowledge the bad behavior and the courage to do something differently. It’s worth it.” In other words, we’re all middle-schoolers, even when we’re middle-aged office workers.

Abusive Bosses Pick on Defenseless Employees