If you have a truly hostile boss — one who routinely screams at you, or ridicules you to your face — first of all, sorry. That sounds terrible. It may seem like the best survival strategy is to just suffer in silence, keep your head down, and get your work done, but a paper recently published in the journal Personnel Psychology suggests a potentially smarter alternative: Use the quietly irritating power of passive-aggression to get back at your jerk of a boss.
The act of retaliation seems to reduce psychological distress, for one — but what surprised lead study author Bennett Tepper, a professor of management at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, was that fighting back against hostility seemed to increase these employees’ job satisfaction and their level of commitment to their employer as well.
Tepper first surveyed 169 employed adults, who were asked questions about how often their bosses acted in a hostile manner (with hostility defined as a boss who yelled at, ridiculed, or intimidated his or her employees), and how often the participants fought back by committing small but satisfying acts of defiance like doing their work half-heartedly, feigning ignorance when criticized for something, or flat-out ignoring their bosses.
The study volunteers were surveyed again, seven months later, about their level of job satisfaction and their psychological distress. The employees who worked under hostile supervisors but did nothing to retaliate fared the worst, experiencing psychological distress and low job satisfaction. In comparison, those who’d met their boss’s hostility with passive-aggression were more likely to report better psychological health, and they also reported more job satisfaction and increased commitment to their companies.
In a second experiment, 371 employed adults were asked the same series of questions, but with an additional survey on whether they felt victimized by their employer. Those who’d fought back were less likely to feel like a victim in their relationship with their bosses, which could help explain why they experienced more job satisfaction and less psychological distress.
I haven’t read the full paper, but the release accompanying it makes no mention of whether or not the boss noticed these little acts of passive aggression; it’s also not clear whether some personalities may benefit more from this kind of quiet retaliation, rather than direct confrontation, than others. (I emailed Tepper about both of these questions, and will update when I hear back.) But, in the press release, Tepper summarizes his finding this way: “The best situation is certainly when there is no hostility. But if your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating. Employees felt better about themselves because they didn’t just sit back and take the abuse.” It’s a risky move, but one that apparently pays off.