We’ve all suffered incompetent or unpleasant bosses. But if yours is outright abusive, what should you do?
Our pages include plenty of advice on coping with a bad boss, and none of it suggests being a bad employee in return. So we were intrigued to see recent research suggesting that employees feel better about working for a “hostile” boss when they’re hostile back. Cue the headlines: if you have a hostile boss, “be hostile right back” or “fight fire with fire.”
That sounded like terrible advice. So I called the paper’s lead author, Bennett Tepper of Ohio State, and asked him to describe his work and its implications. Spoiler alert: even if your boss is a jerk he doesn’t recommend being a jerk back.
In two surveys, Tepper and his colleagues asked American adults how often they experienced abuse from their boss. The survey included prompts like: “My supervisor ridicules me” and
supervisor tells me that my thoughts and feelings are stupid.” Then they asked whether people ignored this abuse or responded in kind, through passive aggressive behavior or in some cases by simply yelling back. Those who were hostile to their supervisors reported less psychological distress and were happier with their careers. But as Tepper explains, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. More than anything, his work is a reminder that bad bosses can inflict real psychological harm on employees and economic costs on organizations.
An edited transcript follows.
What question were you trying to answer with this study, and what did you find?
We have always assumed that when a boss is hostile to an employee, an employee might want to be hostile back, but they wouldn’t perform hostile behaviors in response because there is just too much risk associated with doing that. You are economically dependent on your boss. He or she could fire you. There are lots of things that could go badly for you.
So going way back, we had always assumed that if we were to look at upward hostility as a response to downward hostility, that we would find not much relationship. But we found the opposite, that in fact one of the best, most reliable consequences of downward hostility is upward hostility of various sorts, passive-aggressive kinds of responses and also active-aggressive kinds of responses, actually yelling back at the boss.
So that evokes other kinds of questions like, “What are the consequences of expressing hostility toward a hostile boss?”
And that is what led you to start asking, “How does this affect their satisfaction at work, how does it affect how they feel about their career?” that sort of thing?
Exactly. We knew from other studies that if your boss is hostile toward you, you are going to be less satisfied with your job, less committed to the work. You are more likely to experience psychological distress. We know that performance suffers; we know that people are less helpful when their boss is hostile toward them.
I have found no upside whatsoever to a boss being hostile, even though there is a lay belief out there that if you kind of kick people a little bit, maybe you can get them motivated. We never seem to find evidence of that.
So if in fact people are getting something out of being hostile toward their boss, maybe it would be reflected in some of these outcomes that we know to be negatively affected by exposure to downward hostility.
We actually set up two different lines of reasoning that lead to two very different predictions. One is that, if your boss is hostile toward you, and you respond with hostility, that will just make things worse. By the way, that is the hypothesis I thought for sure was going to be supported.
The alternative hypothesis that would maybe help us explain why people are hostile toward a hostile boss — we called it the buffering hypothesis in this study — is the idea that if you reciprocate your boss’s hostility, it will actually make things a little bit better and you will feel more satisfied, or not as depressed and psychologically harmed.
Our reasoning behind that second hypothesis is that if you reciprocate a boss’s hostility, you are less likely to feel like a victim. Now, we had never studied the idea that a person would report that they feel like they are a victim when their boss is hostile, but it seemed to make some sense.
So maybe if you reciprocate the boss’s hostility, it will make you feel like you are asserting some control over your situation, you are responding in some way, then you will not feel as victimized.
We found a surprising result: although a person is more likely to feel like a victim when their boss is hostile toward them, they are much less likely to feel like a victim when they reciprocate their boss’s hostility.
The other thing we looked was subjective career outcomes. Because we were a little bit surprised by what happened in Study 1, it occurred to us that maybe being hostile toward a hostile boss would not play out in a positive way when we look at other kinds of outcomes like how your career is affected. You may be satisfied in the moment, but maybe in the long run it hurts you. So we also included measures of subjective career success in the second study. Once again, we found that there was this buffering effect and it seemed to work for all the variables that we looked at. And the explanation was that victim identity is what is in play. People feel less like a victim when they express hostility toward a hostile boss.
So offering a buffer against the victim identity is very helpful for people who seem to have a difficult boss. Is there a way that might play out more productively than essentially being hostile back to your boss?
I think that some of the media that have picked up on this study have come to the wrong conclusion. You can see that by looking at the taglines when they are trying to sell the idea of reading the story, right? Be hostile toward your hostile boss, give it back as good as you get.
That is not what we are saying at all, for several reasons. First, our study confirms something we have known for a long time and that is that the best scenario for any employee is to not have an abusive boss, right? That is the best set of circumstances.
If you do have an abusive boss, now what? Is our research saying OK, you should go ahead and be hostile back? Well, I would conclude from our results that engaging in a passive-aggressive way appears to be better than nothing. But what we didn’t look at in this study is alternatives to passive-aggressive behavior as a way of coping.
There are other things that we believe work in other kinds of contexts. When people are experiencing stress, they seek the help of co-workers, they engage in meaningful activity away from work, they exercise, they have hobbies. There are lots of alternatives to passive-aggressive responses that do work.
Now, we don’t know for sure because we didn’t study them. All we know from this is that passive-aggressive behavior seems to be better than nothing. We don’t know if it is better than forgiveness, acceptance, and lots of other things that we believe could be very effective ways of responding to an abusive boss.
One other thing I will add to this: we found in this study that being passive-aggressive appears to have benefits to the employee, but we know from lots of other research that passive-aggressive behavior by an employee undermines the effectiveness of their co-workers, it undermines group effectiveness. So there are costs, it is just that those aren’t the personal costs that we looked at.