Most targets try to avoid contact with an abusive supervisor but this tactic may backfire because it increases the target’s stress, according to research published in the American Psychological Association’s International Journal of Stress Management.
A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel found that direct communication with a bully boss results in more positive emotions for the target than avoidance. An example of direct communication is: “I tell the supervisor directly that he/she must not treat me like that.”
“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact to a minimum. 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,” said Prof. Dana Yagil, a member of the university’s Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences who headed the study.
According to the study, abusive supervision is a major organizational stressor yet little is known about how employees cope with such stress. The study examined five types of strategies for coping with the stress factor of abusive treatment:
- Directly communicating with the abusive boss to discuss the problems.
- Using forms of ingratiation such as doing favors, using flattery and compliance.
- Seeking support from others.
- Avoiding contact with the supervisor.
- Reframing or mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.
The most widely-used strategy reported by the 300 employees who participated in the study was avoiding contact with the abusive supervisor, disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible, and also to seeking support from others. The least used strategy was direct communication with the abusive supervisor — the strategy that was most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.
The study shows that managers should be alert to signs of employee detachment – as it might indicate that their own behavior is being considered offensive by those employees.