Caption: Walking out.
There’s plenty of advice out there on what to do when working for a jerk. The conventional wisdom goes something like this:
Make sure you are not the jerk.
Cut the boss some slack – she’s only human.
Focus on the positive parts of the job
Wait him out.
But, nary a word about fighting back, except as something to avoid, a workplace taboo.
So, I took notice when a recent report suggested that yelling back might be a more effective strategy than previously thought. Researchers at Ohio State “… found a surprising result: although a person is more likely to feel like a victim when their boss is hostile toward them, they are much less likely to feel like a victim when they reciprocate their boss’s hostility.”
Imagine that, the worm turns and feels less of a worm, maybe even puts one over on the bad boss?
That took me back to a leadership study I did at a retail business. Family run, it’s been successful for many years. That success has come in spite of some capriciousness, including abusive behavior, on the part of the owner/boss.
One of the managers, Scott, told me that the boss – usually polite - could be more than a little prickly and unpredictable. But, when he did blow up, Scott would tell him to back off and let him do his job. If the boss persisted, Scott would walk out, saying over his shoulder, “I quit,” and the boss shouting, “You’re fired!” He told me he’d been fired more times than he could count. Invariably, within a day or two, the boss would call him, apologize, and ask him to come back.
So, is there something to be said for fighting fire with fire? The conventional wisdom is to avoid, accommodate and not respond; think happy thoughts as the boss rips you up and down. Protect your job, survive! Is that really best?
The Ohio State researchers are reluctant to deduce that yelling back is the best way. Instead they state the obvious: “… one of the best, most reliable consequences of downward hostility is upward hostility of various sorts, passive-aggressive kinds of responses and also active-aggressive kinds of responses, actually yelling back at the boss.”
In other words, if you are a jerk boss, you can expect blowback, both passive and overt. Your rudeness and yelling may result in employee anger and its outcomes will be low morale and passive-aggressive behavior, all at huge costs to the workplace.
In spite of the research findings, the researchers caution against channeling the vitriolic Jon Taffer instead of surviving as Caspar Milquetoast. And, obviously, it’s best not to have a jerk boss! Small consolation for the worker licking her wounds from the boss’ last spiteful eruption!
My impression is that the researchers are either not fully confident in their “roar back” finding or do not see the relationship between the jerk boss and bullying in general. Bullying (demeaning and name calling) needs to be confronted if it is to be stopped.
Once called - shamed, if you will - the bully backs off. Without a victim the bully loses his/her motivation; it’s no longer fun when victims turn the tables. Concurrently, the turmoil caused by these “roaring mice” may result in an organization’s soul-searching and understanding that there are substantial associated costs when abusive bosses are not checked. The research “found no upside whatsoever to a boss being hostile, even though there is a lay belief out there that if you kind of kick people a little bit, maybe you can get them motivated.”
In Scott’s case, the boss had the good sense to realize firing a valued employee was patently self-destructive. He was motivated to back off, at least until the next flare up.
What do I think? This research, as well as other studies, confirms that bad behavior is most manageable when the behavior is called. Do it as politely as you can even if you have to raise your voice a decibel or two. Be prepared to stand your ground. Will you lose your job? There’s risk, but this study suggests the consequences may not be as dire as conventional wisdom would have it. And you might gain some self-respect.
Caption: I'm not taking this anymore!
© John Lubans 2015