One of the worst things I have ever experienced in my corporate career is dealing with an abusive or aggressive boss. You know the type. He/she won’t stop giving you grief. Maybe they yell or berate you in front of others. Sometimes they laugh their behavior and inappropriateness off as a joke or even worse they apologize over and over again. My least seems as though it happened yesterday. I was dealing with a complicated work situation where I wasn’t the boss, but my title was higher up the food chain. The person, however, was a family member of my boss which made things very complicated and difficult. I dealt with a ton of passive aggressiveness and grief because I was brought on to shake things up and drive change. I’m a direct person and have never done well with any of this behavior which is why I thought it particularly important to share.
How to Handle Your Abusive Boss
When confronting an abusive supervisor, employees often assume they have two choices: confrontation or avoidance. But new research, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal, suggests a third option: Targets of abuse can flip the script, shifting the balance of power in their favor when bosses make life miserable. As subordinates gain leverage over time, they can strategically influence supervisors to stop abuse and even motivate them to mend strained relationships.
Establish a Connection
Sometimes the best way to deal with an abusive boss is to establish a commonality. Find something you have in common that you can focus on to start to build the professional relationship. If your boss is egotistic, choose something that he or she is specifically interested in, like coding, and ask about projects. If low emotional intelligence is the problem, choose something you’re interested in that will make your boss see you as a human being, not just another line item on his quarterly budget. Go out of your way to have a chat at lunch or on breaks – or if you have weekly meetings, lead with a quick “how’s the project XYZ moving along?” to demonstrate your interest.
From the same study mentioned above, decreasing dependence on an abusive supervisor (avoidance) creates safe distance for the subordinate. But this does not motivate the supervisor to reform. Increasing a supervisor’s dependence on the subordinate works better to break the spiral of abuse. Only then does self-interest kick in and drive positive change. This happens naturally when a supervisor recognizes a subordinate as instrumental for goal and resource attainment.
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The question becomes: How to make supervisors more dependent on subordinates? The research reveals two effective strategies.
- The first is value enhancement, which occurs when subordinates make themselves indispensable to their supervisors’ goals and resources.
- The second strategy is coalition formation. This occurs when abused subordinates enlist support from colleagues on their team who already have leverage with the boss. Abusive behavior against isolated targets tend to stop once the supervisor realizes it can trigger opposition from the entire coalition.
Speaking of Coalition Formation: What to do when you see this kind of behavior happening at work to others? We’ve all been taught to stand up to bullies, but no-one tells you how to stand up to the bully who can get you fired. First, send them a link to this post. Second, DO NOT volunteer to go to human resources on their behalf. Coalition, yes. Interjection, NO. Depending on the type of treatment you’re witnessing and who the other person is in relation to your role, encourage them to try some of the techniques on the list.
When It’s Time to Go to HR
- Document everything. Nasty emails, texts, anything in writing. Self-document verbal communication. Include a time and date. Once you decide to take the matter to your HR manager, you’re going to need more than “they hurt my feelings.”
- Be specific. Vague recollections or interpretations of facial expressions are not evidence. Emails or texts or notes from a meeting during which you were called a derogatory name (whether positioned as a “joke” or not), any interaction that contraindicates your performance reviews (i.e. your performance reviews are stellar – the ones that are on file with HR – but your boss frequently accuses you of falling short), be brief and specific.
- Realize that going to HR might be your nuclear option. Just from personal experience, HR isn’t always going to be on the employee’s side, no matter how much evidence you present. Your HR manager might even BE a bully. In this case, have a backup plan and understand that if you quit, you won’t get severance. If there is evidence of bullying and you are terminated, trust that they’re going to give you a fat severance package if you sign paperwork that says you won’t discuss the terms of your separation.
Most importantly, if you see this kind of behavior happening at work to others, be the one to stand up and try help influence the behaviors. No one deserves this kind of treatment. And while you’re standing up, make sure that you’re not inadvertently the bully in the office. If you can’t identify one, great. But you should also perform a “self-check” to ensure you’re treating team members and everyone you work with as you’d like to be treated.
Being the kind of supervisor or team member who is invested in the success of the whole team and the whole company through coaching, cross-team training, and just general pleasantness, means that you’re setting an example for how you expect to be treated and how you expect others to treat you.