But while more and more attention has been given to the effect of bad supervisors—lousy managers can make you sick, negate other company investments and even upend workers' family relationships—there has been less focus on how employees' response to that bad behavior helps or hurts the situation. Recent research, however, shows that your response to an insulting or belittling boss can, over time, exacerbate the situation. Or at least do little to improve it.
A forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology surveyed nearly 250 employees in a variety of organizations over a six-month period about their bosses' behavior and their own. The researchers found that trying to avoid bosses who had behaved poorly, as well as retaliating against their abusive acts, created a vicious cycle that was linked with subsequent mistreatment.
That's not really too surprising. If you jab at a boss who is already treating you poorly, it makes sense that more ridicule might come your way.
But the researchers also found something they didn't expect. They predicted that acts of compassion and empathy—employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they're not asked—would be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.
The study, however, found that wasn't true. "Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful," said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business who was a co-author on the paper. Their findings, she said, seem to "clash with common sense."
In the paper, the researchers say one explanation may be that bosses just see all that extra work as part of the job, something academics refer to as "organizational citizenship," and therefore don't feel the need to treat their employees any better because of those efforts.
So if avoiding or lashing out at your boss is linked with more bad behavior—and if compassion and assistance do little to help—what should employees do to deal with their very own Bill Lumbergh or Montgomery Burns?
Hurst says their paper doesn't really answer that question, so far they have only discovered what not to do. "I think companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied," she said. "For individuals, you’re only going to make your situation worse if you try to retaliate or try to withdraw or hunker down."
Perhaps. While it may not improve the boss's behavior if workers retaliate in passive-aggressive ways, such as ignoring the boss or doing half-hearted work, research from earlier this year shows that such an approach has at least one upside: employees say it at least made them feel better. Those who stood up for themselves were less likely to self-identify as victims, less apt to report psychological distress and more likely to be committed to their jobs.