Breaking the Spiral of Workplace Abuse

Aug 31, 2017
Management
As Featured In 
Harvard Business Review

Targets of Hostile Supervision Can Flip the Script

An abusive boss can make work miserable for anyone, prompting defiant employees to retaliate or flee. New research co-authored by Hui Liao at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows a third option.

“Targets of humiliation, intimidation and verbal attacks can balance the dynamics over time and influence supervisors to mend strained relationships,” Liao says. “A follower has more power than he or she might realize.”

Breaking the spiral of abuse starts with the understanding that bullies rely on an imbalance of power in their favor, but the dynamics can change in any dyad. “Power structures are malleable in the modern workplace, which opens two paths for an abused follower,” Liao says.

A subordinate can decrease his or her dependence on the supervisor, sending a simple message: “I don’t need you as much as you think.” Alternately and often simultaneously, a subordinate can increase the leader’s dependence on him or her, sending the reverse message: “You need me more than you think.”

The second option tends to work better in terms of influencing a supervisor to stop abusive behavior and mend the relationship. The strategy hinges on the follower’s ability to show the consequences of mistreatment in terms the supervisor understands, emphasizing why reconciliation serves the supervisor’s best interests. 

“When this happens, the leader is more likely to regard the abused follower as someone who is instrumental to his or her pursuit of goals and resources, resulting in not only a reduction in future abuse, but reconciliatory efforts from the abusive leader,” the coauthors write in their paper. 

Follower-controlled goals might include higher employee performance, while follower-controlled resources might include follower expertise. “Power dynamics change when abused parties in any type of relationship realize their worth and stop seeing themselves as helpless,” Liao says.

Read more: Shifting the Power Balance with an Abusive Boss is featured in the Harvard Business Review.

About the Author(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

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