The advantages of not turning the other cheek

Kate, the horse

The second riding experience of my life was last Saturday. It really felt like the first one by the end of it, the same soreness of the rear end and the same exhilarating feeling. In the group of five horses with their riders mine was the third. I had a little horse who was actually a mare by the name of Kate. I don’t know what was up with her. Could be that she was acting like a true female who doesn’t like being bossed about or maybe she was just tired. I will never know. She did her job, walking on the path behind the two leading horses, never complaining, never failing to stop when everyone stopped, starting when everyone started, going in the same direction. But, she didn’t want to go as fast as the other horses. Actually it felt like she was dragging her feet reluctantly. No matter how many times the leader of the group would call her, no matter how many times I tried to talk her into it, it seemed as if she ignored us, following her own mind. At some point I kicked her (as instructed, as gently as possible) just to give her a hint, but nope. No effect. The only time she did trot a little, taking me by surprise was when we were heading back to the stables. She was going home. Now that is more like it.

I admired my little horse. She wasn’t intimidated by our impatience at her or by the impatience of the other horses. In a ladylike manner she walked about, going around the puddles (not through them like all the other horses), avoiding the sand and always looking for the firm ground, looking as if she was taking good care of herself.

The problem

What do you do when you are intimidated by your hostile boss? How do you respond? Do you put your head down and do what you are told to do? Or give it back to your hostile boss, somehow?

A study has been made on the response of the employees to the hostility of their bosses and surprisingly what the researchers found is that employees were better off if they returned the hostility. The employees who retaliated against their bad bosses felt less like victims and experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer. On the other hand, when employees did not give it right back, they felt more distress, less job satisfaction and less commitment to their employer.

The result came as a surprise because the researchers thought that there would be no gain for employees who revenge themselves on their bosses.
"The best situation is certainly when there is no hostility. But if your boss is hostile, there appears to be benefits to reciprocating. Employees felt better about themselves because they didn't just sit back and take the abuse,” said Bennett Tepper, lead author of the study and professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

The hostile bosses were ones who yelled at, ridiculed and intimidated their workers.

Employees who returned hostility did it by ignoring their boss, acting like they didn't know what their bosses were talking about, and giving just half-hearted effort.

"These are things that bosses don't like and that fit the definition of hostility, but in a passive-aggressive form," Tepper said.’

The research

The research, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, involved data from two related studies that the researchers conducted.

In the first study participants completed two surveys, seven months apart. In the first survey, the participants completed a measure of supervisor hostility in which they were asked to rate how often their supervisors did things like ridiculing them and telling them that their “thoughts and feelings are stupid.” Also participants reported how often they retaliated by doing things like ignoring their supervisor.

Seven months later the same respondents completed measures of job satisfaction, commitment to employer, psychological distress and negative feelings.

Results showed that when bosses were hostile but employees did not retaliate the workers had higher levels of psychological distress, less satisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their employer. Not so with the employees who returned the hostility.

A second study followed to answer the questions of why employees felt better if they returned their bosses' hostility and whether retaliation hurt their careers.

Results showed that employees who reciprocated their bosses hostility were less likely to identify themselves as victims. The respondents also didn’t believe that their actions hurt their career.

Although this study didn’t examine why returning hostility allowed employees remain committed to their employer and be more satisfied with their jobs, the researchers believe that employees who fight back may have the admiration and respect of their co-workers.

"There is a norm of reciprocity in our society. We have respect for someone who fights back, who doesn't just sit back and take abuse. Having the respect of co-workers may help employees feel more committed to their organisation and happy about their job."


Let’s recapitulate. Say you are an employee who has an abusive boss. Not only does the boss appreciate you but is hostile and horrible to you. What do you do? Do you take it or like my little horse Kate, you follow their agenda in your own terms, resisting the abuse by ignoring intimidation and doing things the way you like and prefer?

Retaliating in a passive-aggressive way (by ignoring the boss and doing things half-heartedly) will make you feel less of a victim and stay committed to your job.

But this is not how things should be in the long run.
Tepper said the message from these findings shouldn't be that employees should automatically retaliate against a horrible boss.

"The real answer is to get rid of hostile bosses," he said. "And there may be other responses to hostile bosses that may be more beneficial. We need to test other coping strategies."