Study finds surprising tactic to be effective in handling a hostile boss

You don’t always have to sit there and take it. In fact, it would be better if you gave some back.

Study finds surprising tactic to be effective in handling a hostile boss

Hostile bosses can be difficult to work with, especially if they routinely belittle or humiliate their employees, but a recent study from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business found employees feel less like victims if they return the hostility directed at them. Researchers found employees who ignored their bosses or pretended like they didn’t know what the bosses were talking about reported they felt less psychological stress and higher job satisfaction.

But pushing back can make people feel more empowered, and researchers said admiration and respect of co-workers may also contribute to employees’ higher feelings of self-worth. And a follow-up study designed to determine whether pushing back against hostile bosses hurt employees careers found — to researchers’ surprise — employees didn’t believe standing up for themselves did any damage.

If you have a hostile boss and are looking for ways to cope, here are some tips.

Ignore the hostility

“Ignoring or pretending that you don't understand is a good opening tactic,” says Lynne Eisaguirre of Workplaces That Work. “Hostile bosses — especially of the yelling, sarcastic type — tend to be like balloons full of hot air. If you just allow them to keep talking, they will eventually run out of air and deflate.”

Try not to take it personally

Chances are, your boss’s hostility isn’t about you, says Jone Bosworth, CEO of inCourage Leading. That can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment, but keep in mind it’s about your boss and her responsibilities.

Detaching can be hard, but it’s effective, says Kathi Elster of K Squared Enterprises. “It means that you understand that the boss’s behavior has nothing to do with you. They treat other people the same way. You are not the first and you won't be the last person to have to deal with this hostile boss.”

Be strong

The schoolyard tactic of reacting strongly to bullying can help in the workplace, too, says Bosworth. “Showing strength discourages bullies, so pay close attention to your body language and eye contact. Repeat back, using a neutral or slightly curious tone, what your hostile boss says to you to clarify and make sure you heard it right.”


Don’t be afraid to communicate your concerns, says Gary Magenta, a senior vice president at Root Inc. Express clearly how your boss’s behavior is affecting you. He recommends saying: “You can help me be at my best when you treat me professionally and with respect.”

Eisaguirre also recommends making an appointment to talk to your boss about why you’re being treated so poorly. “Make a behaviorally specific request about how you want to be treated in order to be more effective,” she says. If that’s not effective, document it all and go to human resources.

Sometimes the hostility can cross a legal boundary. Get to know your rights if you feel your boss has become a workplace bully.