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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