The Case For Sticking Up For Yourself At Work

If your boss is absolutely horrible and there’s no hope of getting out from under him or her, is it better to simply take your lumps quietly, or throw that negative energy right back at them?

An intriguing study by researchers at Ohio State University found that there are important psychological benefits to dishing it back to bad bosses -- and that doing so doesn’t seem to backfire against employees. People who reciprocate the aggression they get from their higher ups feel less like victims, and thus feel more job satisfaction and commitment to the work than if they stay silent about their unfair treatment.

“The best situation is certainly when there is no hostility. But if your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating,” said lead author Bennett Tepper, a management and human resources professor, in a statement about his study. "Employees felt better about themselves because they didn't just sit back and take the abuse.”

The study was published online in the journal Personnel Psychology.

But given the power imbalance, reciprocation against a boss isn’t simply a tit for tat exchange. The abused employees in Tepper’s study didn’t scream back at bosses who yelled at or intimidated their workers. Instead, their responses were less confrontational: ignoring higher-ups, playing dumb or even simply doing a bad job at work tasks.

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

Tepper arrived at his conclusions after conducting two different but related survey studies. In the first, 169 representative study participants from an unnamed city in the Midwest responded to a mail-in survey about how often their bosses did things like ridicule or belittle them. The participants also shared what techniques, if any, they deployed against these bad bosses, like ignoring them or slowing down their work.

Seven months later, the participants answered a follow up survey, this time about job satisfaction and other feelings related to their work place. Tepper found that the participants who stood up to their horrible bosses in some way had higher levels of job satisfaction and more commitment to their employers than participants who took the abuse, but didn’t retaliate.

At this point, Tepper realized that it was clear “upward hostility” seemed to protect employees from feeling dejected and depressed about their treatment at work. But did responding to bad bosses with upward hostility backfire against the feisty employees? He set out to answer that question in the second study, which was a three-part online survey of 371 people across the country.

He asked this new cohort of employees the same questions about bad boss behavior and their responses as the first group of participants, but this time he also asked questions about whether or not they thought their hostile behavior affected their careers in a negative way. Each part of the survey was spaced out over the course of several weeks.

Again, Tepper found that the employees who responded to abusive bosses with hostility felt less like victims than the people who just accepted the bad behavior. But this time, Tepper found that those same employees who fought back in some way also felt that their actions had no negative affect on the outcomes of their careers, such as current positions or salary. Of course, the researchers had no way of objectively measuring career outcomes.

So what does this all mean? Tepper hopes that his study results don’t give employees license to respond to bad behavior with more bad behavior automatically. Instead, he thinks the results are more a reflection of how important it is for an employee’s well-being if they try to avoid taking on a “victim identity.”

“Our work suggests that employees have a personally effective method of avoiding a victim identity — performing acts of upward hostility,” Tepper wrote in his study. But the best way for employees to avoid victimhood is still a topic that needs to be investigated. For instance, Tepper's research isn’t able to prove that upward hostility is the best way to deal with a bad boss, he cautioned. An embattled employee’s other options, like forgiveness and acceptance of a bad boss' behavior, or seeking support from other co-workers, were not examined in this study.

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