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How to Navigate The Social Harm of Having an Abusive Boss

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The economic cost of poor management is substantial. Gallup estimates that around $1 trillion per year is lost due to unrealized productivity and reduced employee engagement in the United States. Some of this economic loss is due to fairly benign factors such as inadequate training or outdated management practices. But a non-trivial portion can likely be attributed to a specific form of toxic leadership.

It’s called abusive supervision — a term used to describe leaders who regularly display hostile behaviors toward their employees, including outbursts of anger, public expressions of ridicule and unwarranted judgments of blame or criticism. Research estimates that abusive bosses cost U.S. employers $23.8 billion annually, which should come as no surprise since victims of abuse at work often report increased emotional distress, burnout and other health-related issues.

In addition to such physiological and psychosomatic problems, abusive bosses threaten their victim’s ability to form and sustain meaningful relationships at work. For example, research shows that victims of work abuse may internalize the mistreatment and blame themselves for its occurrence, which can cause abused employees to believe that others will interpret the abuse as evidence that they aren’t worth befriending.

Supporting this idea, recent research shows that employees who are victims of abuse may worry about whether they are relationally valuable (trustworthy, likable, respected) in the eyes of others and will work hard to try and stay in the good graces of their colleagues.

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Because building and maintaining positive social relationships at work is crucial for both the wellbeing and productivity of all employees, it’s important to understand how to navigate the potential social harm that can come with having an abusive boss.

Try to understand why the abuse is happening

When you’re the target of someone’s anger and hostility, especially when it comes from those in a position of power, your first instinct might be to look inward and consider whether you bear some responsibility for the mistreatment.

This is not necessarily bad practice. Such forms of honest, self-reflection are important for maintaining positive social relationships. However, sometimes the mistreatment is unwarranted. In such cases, it can be important to understand why the abuse occurred.

For example, while abusive leadership can be habitual, sometimes leaders engage in such behavior impulsively due to breakdowns in self-regulation. That is, things like poor sleep quality or the daily demands that come with dealing with customers can cause leaders to thoughtlessly lash out at their employees.

While this does not excuse their behavior, it can provide context for why the behavior occurred, whether it can be expected to occur again, and whether attempting to salvage the relationship is possible or worthwhile. After all, when leaders engage in abusive behavior impulsively, they may be more likely to feel guilty and work to repair the relationship with the abused employee.

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Be careful not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse

Sometimes it’s possible and worthwhile to attempt to salvage a relationship with an abusive boss. However, it’s important to recognize that such attempts can also backfire and ultimately sustain the cycle of abuse — especially when the leader’s abuse is habitual or an expression of an underlying toxic personality.

One recent study published in the Journal of Management found that abused employees who valued positive interpersonal relationships at work became concerned about their self-image and tried to protect it through acts of kindness and ingratiation. Specifically, the abused employees they studied tried to demonstrate their value to their coworkers by providing them with support or assisting them with their work tasks and tried to win the favor of their leader through compliments and flattery.

Although such behavior may reflect victims’ attempts to repair the relationship with their abusive leader, the authors caution that it may inadvertently perpetuate the cycle of abuse because it could signal to the leader that their abusive behavior leads to positive outcomes.

The study states, “While we absolutely acknowledge the many and varied reasons why some individuals tolerate abusive work relationships (job insecurity, financial strain, lack of other options, etc.), we encourage those who are experiencing abuse in the workplace to consider taking actions to stop the abuse if at all possible, even if it means that their workplace reputation may suffer.”

Such actions might include discussing the matter with your leaders’ boss, filing a formal complaint with HR, requesting a transfer to another department, or, if all else fails, seeking employment elsewhere.

As the authors note, “Calling more attention to the abuse they are experiencing may be a difficult step, but it may be the only way to stop the cycle of abuse.”

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