I’ve written previously about abusive bosses and psychologically unhealthy management in general, and I’m revisiting it a bit here, because of a new study that highlights the difficulty people have when dealing with this kine of management environment. And not just employees: sometimes researchers themselves have a naive understanding of the problem.
That is, some recent research about employees who deal with abusive bosses shows that a well-intentioned study of workplace behavior can produce findings that confound the researchers’ predictions. This research found one unsurprising result; but another part of the findings – which puzzled the researchers — is what caught my eye.
To explain, the research surveyed the ways in which employees behave when working for abusive bosses. Those are often people who are narcissistic, denigrating, arrogant and unsupportive — or outright undermining — of employee’s learning and development.
The unsurprising part of the findings was that just trying to avoid the abusive boss or plotting ways to retaliate didn’t work. That made things worse for the employee, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and summarized by Jena McGregor in the Washington Post.
Rather, the other set of findings is what got my attention. Here, the researchers predicted that “acts of compassion and empathy — employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they’re not asked” would lead to diminished abuse by those bosses. And, that “acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.”
The researchers were surprised to discover that it didn’t happen. Instead, according to the study’s co-author Charlice Hurst, “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful.” The researchers concluded that their findings seemed to “clash with common sense.”
Really? I think most anyone who’s ever worked for abusive bosses would laugh at such “common sense” assumptions. No, trying to be “nice” or empathic towards the narcissistic, arrogant boss who often makes conflicting demands on employees isn’t going to produce positive change.
However, a hint at what can help comes from another study. It found that employees who find ways to disengage, emotionally, from abusive bosses, experience a greater sense of managing their dilemma and its emotional impact.
That’s consistent with what I’ve found in my work with men and women who deal with these situations. That is, if you reframe how you envision your situation to begin with, that can open the door to proactive, positive, constructive actions in the situation you feel trapped in. There are several ways you can do this. It can begin with what one mid-level executive did, for example, as she looked for an alternative to just hunkering down, feeling depressed and disempowered.
She began with mindfulness meditation, focusing her attention on simply observing the negative emotions her boss’s behavior aroused in her. Just “watching” her emotions pass through her weakened her tendency to dwell in anger or pursue unproductive actions. That initiated a shift towards stepping “outside” herself — outside the narrow vantage point of her own ego – and towards seeing herself as though a character in a movie. With that expanded perspective she could view her boss as simply being the person he was; no matter what the psychological reasons were for why he was that way; or how she judged them. Emotional disengagement helped her not take his behavior personally, although it impacted her personally. In effect, she remained “indifferent” to her own emotional reactions. And yet she stayed engaged in seeking solutions to her situations.
For example, she began to ask him directly for ways she could aid his objectives – rather than avoid or circumvent him. She also decided to cede control of some areas that didn’t matter to her, but which her boss seemed to enjoy micromanaging. Her disengaged perspective strengthened her confidence in her expertise; that her boss’s agenda or his abusive management didn’t diminish it.
Additionally, however – and importantly – she concluded that her future under him was probably a dead end for the foreseeable future. So she immediately updated her resume and began looking for a new position. This kept her focused on her career development objectives while navigating through her situation with as little friction as possible.
Of course, it’s important to self-examine at the outset when you find yourself in a bad situation. Look honestly, with outside help if necessary, at what you might be contributing to the problem. Ask yourself, “How much is it me or the situation?” Without doing that, you might take actions that you later regret or that prove to be unhelpful.
Nevertheless the example I described above highlights some guidelines that help people deal with a range of abusive, destructive and otherwise unhealthy management. They include:
Create an emotional buffer zone. Observe your internal emotional responses to your situation, but recognize that you’re not obligated to act on them. Visualize a “space” between your emotions and how you choose to deal with them in your behavior. If you don’t, you’re likely to say or do something unhelpful or damaging to yourself. Stay aware of your buttons that your boss is pushing, but don’t get drawn into reacting to your boss’ emotional issues. Recognize that you always have a choice about what you do with your emotions in your own behavior.
Expand your perspective. The buffer zone around your triggered emotions enlarges your perspective about the situation: what’s feeding into it, and what may be driving your boss’s conduct. Seeing the problem in a much larger context includes looking at many factors. For example, the role of other players or other organizational issues and politics, regardless of what your opinion is about them. It includes considering that your boss’s controlling or abusive behavior may reflect some fear about her or his own security in the position.
Act with “engaged indifference.“ That buffer zone and an enlarged perspective helps you become more proactive towards managing your situation, while being “indifferent” to your own emotional reactions that are triggered along the way. You’re less likely to be drawn towards unproductive behavior fueled by anger, resentment or self-pity. You might even decide to look for ways to help your boss feel more secure or supported, despite what you think of him or her, because doing that might diminish your boss’s anxiety and will therefore make your life a bit easier as long as you remain there.
Avoid Another Abusive Situation. If you decide you must leave, then do the research when considering a new job: Look for signs of a potentially negative situation by, for example, paying attention to what you hear during interviews; asking people within the organization what it’s like to work for that company or that boss; heed any red flags raised by what you hear…and don’t contribute to history repeating itself.
A slightly different version of this article also appeared in The Huffington Post.