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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Dealing with a Hostile Boss? Fight Fire with Fire

Dealing with a Hostile Boss? Fight Fire with Fire
Credit: Master1305/Shutterstock

When dealing with unfriendly and antagonistic bosses, it's often best to give them a taste of their own medicine, new research suggests.

Employees experience less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and greater commitment to their employer when they retaliate against their boss's bad behavior, according to a study recently published online in the journal Personnel Psychology.

While the best work situations are those where there is no hostility, those don't exist everywhere, said Bennett Tepper, lead author of the study and professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

"If your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating," Tepper said in a statement. "Employees felt better about themselves because they didn't just sit back and take the abuse."

The research defines hostile bosses as those who, among other things, yell at, ridicule and intimidate their workers. Employees who returned hostility did so, not by yelling and screaming, but by ignoring their boss, acting like they didn't know what their boss was talking about and giving just half-hearted effort.

"These are things that bosses don't like and that fit the definition of hostility, but in a passive-aggressive form," Tepper said.

The research was based on data from several surveys the researchers conducted. The first featured two separate surveys of 169 people. In the first survey, the respondents were asked to rate how often their supervisors did things like ridicule them and tell them that their "thoughts and feelings are stupid."[Admit It: Hating Your Boss May Not Be So Bad ]

The participants reported how often they retaliated by doing things like ignoring their supervisor. Seven months later, the same respondents completed a second survey on job satisfaction, commitment to their employer, psychological distress and negative feelings.

The study's authors found that when employees didn't retaliate against their hostile bosses they had higher levels of psychological distress, less satisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their employer.

The researchers then conducted a second set of surveys to determine why employees felt better if they returned their boss's hostility and whether retaliation hurt their careers. This involved surveying 371 people from across the country three times, each three weeks apart.

The first survey asked respondents many of the same questions as the first study, while the second asked questions designed to test if the employees felt like a victim in their relationship with their boss. In addition to other questions, the third survey asked employees about career outcomes, such as whether they had been promoted and whether they were meeting their income goals.

The results revealed that employees who turned the hostility back on their bosses were less likely to identify themselves as victims and less likely to report psychological distress and more likely to be satisfied with and committed to their jobs.

"In this second study, we wanted to see if employees who retaliated against their bosses also reported that their career was damaged by their actions," Tepper said. "But in our survey, anyway, employees didn't believe their actions hurt their career."

Tepper believes employees feel the way they do when retaliating against hostile bosses because it helps them gain the admiration and respect of co-workers.

"We have respect for someone who fights back, who doesn't just sit back and take abuse," he said. "Having the respect of co-workers may help employees feel more committed to their organization and happy about their job."

The study was co-authored by Marie Mitchell, an associate professor at the University of Georgia; Dana Haggard, an associate professor at Missouri State University; Ho Kwong Kwan, an assistant professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics; and Heeman Park, a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.

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