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How to Deal with a Bullying Boss, According to New Research

It's important to support the victims and train the leaders.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Liu-Qin Yang, Portland State University, Portland, OR

Xin Liu, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China

Yucheng Zhang, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Imagine you work with a bullying boss who ridicules you, blames you for others’ mistakes, or put you down in front of others. How would you feel about such nasty treatments? What would you do in response to such treatments? What could the organization do to better manage such situations?

A new study in the Journal of Management that we published with Shan Xu and Timothy Bednall comprehensively reviewed and synthesized existing research evidence (427 first-hand studies) to answer the aforementioned questions, by focusing on two important employee performance indicators that could result from the treatments from bullying bosses (or abusive supervision). These performance indicators are (1) the effort to do the unpaid extras or “organizational citizenship behavior” like helping coworkers with work problems, and (2) the “counterproductive work behavior” such as taking longer breaks or coming in late without notice; both are critical for the effectiveness of teams and the entire organization.

We found that victims of bullying bosses often feel stressed out and/or feel that they are treated unfairly. Furthermore, these feelings of stress and unfairness are responsible for the victims’ being less willing to do the unpaid extras and doing more frequent counterproductive work behavior.

The intriguing part of our finding is that each of these two types of victim behavioral reactions can be attributed to mainly one reason. On the one hand, stressed out victims are more likely to do counterproductive behavior at work. Understandably, stress is often uncontrollable: When one is anxious or doesn’t sleep well, he/she would be more likely to lose their self-control, come in late or take a longer break, lash out at coworkers or disobey instructions. On the other hand, victims perceiving their bullying bosses as unfair are more likely to withhold their effort to do the unpaid extras to restore fairness feelings. That is, justice is more rational: Something isn’t fair at work, so one is purposely not going to help other people nor volunteer to come in to work on a Saturday.

Additionally, evidence from our review study indicates that employees working in more masculine cultures—where competition/achievement/success is the societal emphasis—tend to commit more frequent counterproductive work behavior in response to bullying bosses, compared to those working in more feminine cultures—where concern with social relationships is the societal emphasis.

What companies can do to prevent the negative consequences of bullying bosses:

  • Launch regular training programs to help supervisors learn and adopt more effective interpersonal and management skills when interacting with their employees
  • Implement fair policies and procedures to reduce employees’ perceptions of unfairness in the organization
  • Provide employees with resources sufficient for performing their job and managing work stress, through offering mindfulness training, employee assistance program and more
  • For multi-national corporations that have subsidiaries in more masculine cultures, the aforementioned measures could be implemented more frequently

What individual employees can do to cope with the “bullying bosses” situation:

We recommend readers to take proactive measures to reduce incidents of bullying from bosses and ensure sufficient resources for stress management in case of occurrence. Example measures include

  • participating in stress management training if available at their workplace or elsewhere (e.g., stress reduction training, meditation)
  • utilizing employee assistance programs when available
  • using research evidence like ours to advocate for the aforementioned organization-level measures to prevent bullying from bosses and/or curb negative consequences of bullying bosses.
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