For most, dealing with an abusive boss means avoidance, not confrontation, even though confrontation is probably the most effective tactic.

A new study reviews traditional coping strategies and finds they are rarely effective and often contribute to increased stress and anxiety.

“Abusive supervision is highly distressing for employees. Our study shows that the strategies being used by employees to cope with the stress caused by such behavior do not lead to the most positive outcomes,” said Dana Yagil, Ph.D., from the University of Haifa in Israel.

According to the authors, prior studies have looked at the effect of abusive supervision on employee performance. But research on the effect of different coping strategies on employee well-being is lacking.

The current study examined five types of strategies used for coping with the stress of abusive treatment: directly communicating with the abusive supervisor to discuss the problems; using forms of ingratiation – i.e., doing favors, using flattery and compliance; seeking support from others; avoiding contact with the supervisor; and what is known as “reframing” — mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

Researchers followed 300 employees asking them to rate the frequency of abusive behavior by a supervisor — such as ridicule, invasion of privacy, rudeness and lying.

The participants were also asked to rate the frequency of engaging in each of 25 strategies that belong to the five categories.

For example: “I tell the supervisor directly that he/she must not treat me like that” (direct communication category) ; “I support the supervisor in matters that are important to him/her, so that he/she will see I am on his/her side” (ingratiation); “I try to have the least possible contact with the supervisor (avoidance of contact); “I relieve myself by talking to other people about the supervisor’s behavior” (support-seeking); and “I remind myself that there are more important matters in my life” (reframing).

Investigators found that abusive treatment from a superior was most strongly associated with avoiding contact; disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible and seeking social support.

Further, direct communication with a supervisor confronting the abuse was the least strongly associated communication strategy.

Researchers found these strategies to be ineffective as avoidance and that seeking support elevated employees’ negative emotions. Moreover, communicating with the supervisor – which employees do less – was the strategy most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.

“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact with an abusive boss to a minimum,” said Yagil. “However, this strategy further increases the employee’s stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor.”

Researchers said that although the study focused on the behaviors expressed by an employee as a result of actions by a supervisor, managers should watch for signs of employee detachment — as it might indicate that their own behavior is considered offensive by an employee.

The study is published in the International Journal of Stress Management .

Source: University of Haifa