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How to deal with a hostile boss

Believe it or not, researchers say you should be hostile right back

Graphic © ayelet_keshet - Fotolia
When the boss gets on your case your life can be miserable. But when a demanding attitude crosses the line to hostility, it can be even worse.

Last year Careerbuilder.com did a survey that found bullying was widespread in the workplace. When it drilled deeper into the numbers it found 45% of the employees who reported being bullied named their boss as the bully.

So what do you do when you are on the receiving end of hostility from the boss? Researchers at Ohio State conducted a study to find out. To their surprise, they found the most effective strategy was for the employee to return the hostility.

Hmmm. That sounds a bit dangerous. But the researchers said their study made clear that employees felt less like victims when they stood up to a hostile supervisor.

"Before we did this study, I thought there would be no upside to employees who retaliated against their bosses, but that's not what we found," said Bennett Tepper, lead author of the study.

Giving as good as you get

Of course, the best workplace situation is one where there is no hostility in either direction. But the data appears to suggest that if your boss is hostile, you should shovel it right back.

“Employees felt better about themselves because they didn't just sit back and take the abuse," Tepper said.

So, what kinds of things are we talking about when we say a boss is hostile? The study defined it as bosses who yelled at, ridiculed or intimidated their subordinates.

But how can an employee retaliate without being insubordinate – a sure ticket to the unemployment line? Tepper says employees who returned hostility did it by ignoring their boss, acting like they didn't know what their bosses were 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," he said. "I expect that you don't have too many employees yelling and screaming at their bosses."

The researchers reached their conclusions by interviewing employees about hostile encounters with their supervisors and how they handled it. Seven months later the same employees were quizzed on job satisfaction, commitment to their employer, psychological distress and negative feelings.

When bosses were hostile - but employees didn't retaliate - the employees had higher levels of psychological distress, less satisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their employer.

The employees who met hostility with hostility didn't have those negative consequences. However, the study didn't address whether they experienced other types of negative consequences.

Yes, but does it help your career?

Left unanswered is whether an employee's career suffered as a result of their reciprocal hostility.

So the researchers conducted a second study. When retaliating employees were asked about the consequences of their actions, most said it had not affected their careers.

Tepper says the take home from the study shouldn't be that employees should automatically retaliate against a horrible boss.

"The real answer is to get rid of hostile bosses," he said.

Well-timed and documented complaints through the proper channels just might accomplish that. And that might be the most hostile retaliation of all.

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