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Dealing with an abusive supervisor? Change the power dynamic

Elijah Wee

Elijah Wee

An abusive boss can make you feel helpless and hopeless.

But new research by Elijah Wee of the UW Foster School of Business offers a way out of the persistent cycle of abuse. Flipping the power dynamic, even a bit, can bring an end to supervisory bullying—and even lead to reconciliation.

“At the heart of the problem is power imbalance,” says Wee, an assistant professor of management at Foster. “If you are more dependent on your leader than your leader is on you, then there’s a greater likelihood of abuse.

“Our study challenges the conventional notion of the follower as passive and defenseless against the spiral of abuse.”

When subordinates position themselves as instrumental to a pernicious supervisor, Wee finds that the abuse dissipates over time. And when an abusive manager recognizes his reliance on a subordinate, he is more likely to repair the damaged relationship.

Boss bully

A startling 27 percent of American workers—nearly 67 million people—have suffered from some form of verbal abuse from their leaders, according to a 2014 study. These behaviors include repeated insults, intimidation, threats and humiliation.

Abusive supervision exacts a considerable toll, both on the targeted individuals and the organizations they work for.

The stress of a bullying boss triggers a fight-or-flight response. And neither leads to anything positive. Confronting a powerful abuser often exacerbates the problem. Avoidance can be difficult or impossible. Coping can involve unhealthy eating or drinking. And sometimes quitting is not an option.

Organizations suffer as well. A 2006 study estimated that supervisory abuse is costing US corporations nearly $24 billion a year in lost productivity, staff turnover, legal fees and damage to their brand.

Despite a recent push to implement policies and practices promoting diversity and fairness, most corporations find it challenging to t hold abusive managers accountable for their actions, Wee says.

He wondered if there is anything that subordinates could do to solve the problem for themselves.

Becoming essential

To find out, Wee collaborated with co-authors Hui Liao of the University of Maryland, Dong Liu of Georgia Institute of Technology, and Jun Liu of Renmin University (China). The researchers hypothesized that subordinates could stop the abuse by making themselves essential to the goals and resources valued by their supervisors.

This conclusion was confirmed by two field studies of employees and supervisors at a real estate firm and a bank in China. In each setting, the researchers studied dyads of leaders and followers over three distinct time periods to test the causal relationships among power dynamics in the dyad, the coping strategies of followers, the abusive behaviors of leaders, and the efforts of leaders to reconcile.

Surveys over time confirmed the role of power in the rise or recession of abuse.

Specifically, when followers made themselves more indispensable to their abusive leader, the likelihood of future abuse diminished. Importantly, these leaders also tended to make an effort to restore a healthy relationship with their followers.

“The most surprising conclusion in our research was that followers can be strategic and resourceful so as to change the course of abusive supervision,” Wee says. “They may not have thought of these as strategies, per se, but they definitely had a way of shifting some of the power into their own hands.”

Wee and his co-authors categorized these proactive strategies by subordinates as “approach balancing operations,” which include:

  • Forming coalitions among co-workers.
  • Developing or improving skills that the supervisor regards as important.
  • Learning new skills that a supervisor will rely on.
  • Improving job performance to achieve the goals that the supervisor values.

Advocate for yourself

Wee notes that the study was conducted in China, which has a culture of high power distance—a greater acceptance of formal structure and distribution of authority. He expects the effects observed in Chinese organizations would likely be even greater in cultures less beholden to traditional lines of authority, such as the United States.

Whatever the culture, Wee says that organizations should consider the state of power dependence between managers and employees as a barometer to forecast abusive supervision. And a mutual dependence between managers and followers is conducive to positive interactions, reduced coercion, enhanced stability and productivity.

In addition to organizational policies to stem abusive behaviors, he also encourages followers to rethink their role in combating supervisory abuse: “In modern organizations, everyone has to play an active role in advocating for themselves.”

Power to the people

Wee hopes that this study dispels the traditional notion of followers as passive, helpless and without agency.

“Followers may have this assumption that there’s nothing they can do about their current abuse situations. They’re resigned to this feeling of powerlessness,” he adds. “But there are always opportunities to gain relational power (if not positional power). Leaders still rely on followers to provide resources and help them achieve important goals and resources.

“The key point is to understand what the leader values. Find ways of creating that value. Make yourself indispensable. And emphasize the contribution you are making.”

At the same time, Wee emphasizes that this research does not suggest that only employees are responsible for managing their abusive supervisors.

“We recognize that many issues leading to abusive supervision require organizational-level interventions,” he says. “But a follower-centric solution is definitely a part of a holistic approach to this pressing organizational issue.”

Moving from Abuse to Reconciliation: A Power-Dependence Perspective on When and How a Follower Can Break the Spiral of Abuse” was published in the December 2017 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

The study is part of Wee’s doctoral dissertation which has won the 2018 S. Rains Wallace Dissertation Award from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.