Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn't Stop Abuse

[CN: abuse]

So I’m reading this Washington Post article about some recent research on abusive bosses and come across this perplexing bit:

But the researchers also found something they didn’t expect. They 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 be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.

The study, however, found that wasn’t true. “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who was a co-author on the paper. Their findings, she said, seem to “clash with common sense.”

To put it mildly, these findings only clash with common sense if you’ve never been abused or bullied. If you have, then you know that abuse is not about persuading people to do nice things for you. It’s about controlling them: their feelings, their thoughts, their self-esteem, their experiences, their behavior, even the course of their lives. It is also about asserting power publicly to control bystanders as well.

That’s why bullies and abusers “win” almost no matter how you respond. If you lash out in anger, they get to use their higher status to get you in trouble for your anger. If you cry, they get to ridicule you. If you ignore it and walk away, they get to paint you as a coward–and, regardless, they still get to influence bystanders even if they haven’t influenced you. If you start being extra nice to them, then they reap the benefits of your niceness while reinforcing their dominance over you. The only way to “win” in an abusive situation is to find a way to get out of it entirely and never look back, and that’s exactly what abuse is designed to prevent you from doing.

And in the event that a boss is deliberately choosing to be abusive in order to elicit “supportive and helpful” behavior from you, then behaving in a supportive and helpful manner would only reinforce the abuse*. It would be like feeding scraps to a dog that begs at the table, except that dogs that beg are at worst annoying and bosses that abuse are at worst life-ruining. I am absolutely horrified at the idea that people are advising victims of workplace abuse to perform “acts of compassion and empathy” towards their abusers, because if anything, that’ll only teach the abusers that abuse is an effective method of getting people to kiss your ass.

The article continues:

In the paper, the researchers say one explanation may be that bosses just see all that extra work as part of the job, something academics refer to as “organizational citizenship,” and therefore don’t feel the need to treat their employees any better because of those efforts.

I submit that it’s not that at all, but rather that people who abuse, whether they do it in a school or their home or their office, do it because they reap some psychological reward from it. Why would they give that reward up just because you did some of their paperwork?

One might protest that this is making it seem like there’s nothing that victims of workplace abuse can do to stop the abuse. Indeed, the article notes that the researchers have so far “only discovered what not to do” to stop abuse, and nothing to do to stop it.

While that might aggravate those who believe strongly in a just world, it makes complete sense. Abusive situations are abusive precisely because they involve a significant imbalance of power. The person with less power does not have the capacity to influence the situation significantly. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have been abused in the first place. And the thing about having relatively little power is that you can’t just decide one day to have more power. That’s not how power works.

That’s why telling victims of abuse and other power-based acts of violence (such as sexual assault) to prevent that violence is not only hurtful and condescending, but also totally useless. That’s why comparing abuse and sexual assault to other situations, like stolen bikes, doesn’t work.

The researchers in this particular study seem to have wised up a lot about abusive dynamics over the course of their research. Co-author Charlice Hurst says that in order to prevent workplace abuse, “Companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied.” In other words, the responsibility for preventing bullying rests on the shoulders of those who have more relative power within the workplace, not those who have less. The way to stop bullying is to implement reforms at the systemic level, not at the individual level.

(And no, before anyone jumps in with “but some employees are just terrible and rude and bad at their jobs, so shouldn’t they improve,” that’s completely irrelevant. The solution to a bad employee is to tell them how to improve and if they don’t, fire them. It’s not to abuse them.)

While victims of abuse do not have much control over the abuse itself (unless they manage to extricate themselves and leave), they do have some control over their emotional reaction. It is very important that I said “some.” I didn’t say “complete,” or “a lot.” And that control can include, for instance, going to therapy to learn coping skills. But the reason I bring this up is that “passive-aggressive retaliation,” one of the reactions the researchers showed to be ineffective in terms of stopping abuse, was also shown in a different study to be effective for a different purpose: helping employees cope. In sum, “Employees felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses and as a result experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.”

Of course, retaliation of any sort can be dangerous, you know your situation best, take all psychology reporting with an appropriate grain of salt, et cetera. I’m hesitant to do some sort of “coping with abuse” advicepost because I don’t want to come across like I’m condoning abuse or being fatalistic about it, but on the other hand, 1) abuse happens and 2) it’s already been demonstrated numerous times that you cannot prevent your own abuse. Using whatever coping strategies work for you seems like a good idea.

I hope that studies like this one bring more awareness to the psychology community about the dynamics of abuse. Too often, psychologists fall into the trap of focusing overly on individual factors (like what abuse victims can/should do) as opposed to structural factors (like what communities/systems can/should do). This causes them to make ridiculous assumptions like “it’s just common sense that being nice to an abuser would make them stop abusing!”

It makes sense that only someone with more power (whether individual or collective) than an abuser can make them stop abusing, although that may not always be sufficient. If an abuser holds such absolute power in your workplace that nobody and nothing can hold them accountable, you’re going to have issues with abuse no matter how nice the abuser’s victims are.


*I want to be very clear here that sometimes being extra nice to an abuser feels like the only safe thing to do, in which case you should do whatever makes you feel safe first and foremost. I will never pass judgment on the ways in which individuals choose to cope with their abuse. However, I also don’t think we should advise people to do things that seem like they’d make abuse worse, so, that’s what I’m getting at here.


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Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn't Stop Abuse

13 thoughts on “Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn't Stop Abuse

  1. 1

    I’m as baffled as you are about them being baffled about their results. It’s like expecting abusive husbands to become nice husbands if the wife simply is perfect. Not only does it not work, because everybody who has ever been in an abusive relatonship of any kind* knows that the person who wants to find fault will find fault, it also blames the victim for not doing whatever they are currently doing plus X. There’s no end to “being nice and helpful”. Somebody with power over you is NOT a scared and aggresive dog you might be able to calm with soothing words and a few doggy treats.

    *Not just romantic. Family and professional relationships as well

  2. 2

    To put it mildly, these findings only clash with common sense if you’ve never been abused or bullied.

    That’s good for Charlice Hurst and her team, isn’t it? But I’m not really baffled by such expectations; indeed, as you say, if you don’t have any experience with constant and prolonged abuse, it’s hardly surprising that you are full of ‘predictions’ and ‘good advices’.

    You are also very right that being on the receiving end of these ‘good advices’ is just tiresome. Yes, they are completely useless. Excellent post.

  3. 4

    I cannot imagine actual human beings, who have lived around other human beings, or read any history at all, thinking that sucking up to bullies and abusers stops abuse. Rewarding undesirable behaviour does not make it less likely. Changing behaviour, whether of a puppy or an adult human, is achieved by rewarding desirable behaviour.

  4. 5

    They 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 be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.

    Heck no. It just convinces the abuser that you are a timid wuss trying to placate them, so they escalate their aggression.

  5. 6

    Adding to the fact that I totally can’t see how anyone is surprised by the results. Did it ever occur to them that anybody who attempts to please/placate/suck up to an abusive boss might then be recruited to facilitate more abuse on other workers?

    It’s productive, sometimes, to decide that you can’t just divide people into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, but I think that policy creates serious problems when looking at abusive situations. Instead of deciding that the abuser is at fault, and will continue to abuse until forcibly removed from a situation it turns dealing with abuse into ‘conflict resolution’ which ignores the power dynamic and the fact that everybody in the situation isn’t operating with the same objectives. The abusive boss is probably less concerned with workplace productivity than they are with a power trip; it annoys me how abusive bosses get portrayed as just misguided people who are a little *too* committed towards results, rather than people who have their own agendas that have little to nothing to do with work.

  6. 7

    I’m as baffled as you are about them being baffled about their results. It’s like expecting abusive husbands to become nice husbands if the wife simply is perfect.

    D’Awwwww. He really did just want Honey-Bunny to stop overcooking the pot roast and to gain a greater understanding of Ephesians. What a great guy he is, punching her in the kidneys at the risk of his own arrest just to help her motivate herself to become a better wife! Where can I get a hubby like that?

  7. 8

    Oh, man, this… yeah. Um, pretty much everything I did was wrong. Like, I once got an ear-ful for getting home five minutes late. Right. Because I can control evening traffic, and make all the lights turn green, and make the bus move faster.

    So I tried to just… not… like, push his buttons.

    The harder I tried to be super-nice and accommodating, the more he’d demand from me.

    You’re right — the only way to “win” is to not “play the game”. Heh. If only it were that easy.

  8. 9

    It did surprise me a bit; I would expect that sometimes, trying to placate the abuser would work in the short-term, keeping the victim safer temporarily, because it would “confirm” the abuser’s powerful position in their own mind. (This wouldn’t imply that it’s the victim’s fault if they’re abused, though; just that placating the abuser is used as a survival strategy.) I’ve sometimes read advice to battered women that runs along the lines of, “While you’re waiting for your opportunity to leave, try not to do anything you know will make him angry.” This seems sensible to me; if you’re badly hurt, or locked into your room, it’s much harder to escape. But maybe there’s a difference between “being helpful” and simply “avoiding things that you know will make him angry”.

    I wonder if maybe placating the abuser is ineffective because to put yourself in a position that seems subservient to the abuser only makes the abuser see you as an easier target for abuse. Maybe whatever you did to try to please the abuser would just be canceled out by the abuser’s increased estimate of the victim’s vulnerability.

    Anyway, if you really want to help your abuser, the best you can do is get you and any other vulnerable people out of there. Helping somebody never includes letting them hurt you, or anyone else you can protect.

  9. 10

    Having been subject to abuse at work and elsewhere, I am most certainly not surprised. You are right that the only way to win is to do whatever it takes to get away from the abuser. I have had to leave jobs and leave towns, after spending futile energy trying to make it stop.

    I read a story on a “worst boss” site, a woman with a horribly abusive boss. But the boss broke her leg. The employee saw her struggling to get out of her car with crutches, briefcase, purse and thought it was the “Christian thing” to help the boss, so she carried all the stuff while walking slowly with the boss to her office since the boss was slowed by her crutches.

    And was promptly fired for being late to work.

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