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How to deal with an abusive boss?

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This article is based on a research done by Hui Liao, Elijah Wee and Dong Liu.

When dealing with an abusive boss, employees often assume that they have 2 choices: (1) Confrontation or (2) Avoidance.


However, their research suggest that there are another option, where targets of abuse can shift the power balance in their favor when bosses make life miserable. And as the subordinates gain leverage over time, they can strategically influence supervisors to stop abuse and even motivate them to make amend on strained relationships.

This is based on the understanding that power structures within organizations are malleable over time. The premise is based on “power at its core arises from dependency”. The more one depends on another for reaching goals and gaining resources, the less power one has in the relationship.

Subordinates at work may depend on supervisors for promotions, raises, training, and high-profile assignments. But subordinates still have leverage. In most cases their supervisors rely on them for expertise, ideas, and work performance. Subordinates can change the power dynamics by engaging in two types of power-balancing operations. They can decrease their dependence on the supervisor or increase the supervisor’s dependence on them. Come to think about this, I’ve seen once, where a subordinate’s power and influence exceed that not only of his manager, but exceed his boss’s boss.

The study found that decreasing the dependence on an abusive supervisor (avoidance) creates safe distance for the subordinate but this does not motivate the superior to reform.

Meanwhile, increasing a supervisor’s dependence on the subordinate works better to break the spiral of abuse. Only then does self-interest kick in and drive positive change. Reason, the superior view the subordinate as instrumental for goal and resource attainment.

But, how to make supervisors more dependent on subordinates?


Increasing supervisors dependence on subordinate.

1st : Value Enhancement

Simple, this happens when subordinates make themselves indispensable to their supervisors’ goal and resources. Easier said than done, this remind me of another advice I received before, work harder than you paid for.


Lukaku, an employee often ridiculed by his supervisor. In a team meeting, he realized that his boss wanted to develop a new analytical procedure. Therefore, realizing he need to shift the power dynamics, he invested effort in acquiring knowledge about the procedure and became an expert on it. He also helped coworkers get up to speed.

As he demonstrated his value, his supervisor withdrew from abusing him and became more attentive to his needs.

We can look for similar reconciliation with our superiors bu understanding their goals, needs and pain points. Then work hard to acquire specific competencies and resources that not only valuable to the supervisor but also difficult for the supervisor to obtain elsewhere. By doing so, you also increase your worth in your industry. Finally, we can help our supervisors solve problems and achieve goals in a timely manner.

All of these actions require subordinates, despite hard feelings from strained relationships with their supervisors, to stay positive, keep skills up to date, and contribute above and beyond the call of duty.


2nd: Coalition Formation.

This happens when abused subordinates enlist support from colleagues on their team who already have leverage with the boss. Abusive behavior against isolated targets tend to stop once the supervisor realizes it can trigger opposition from the entire coalition.

3-pronged approach for effective coalition

  1. You should know them personally and understand their strengths, needs and concerns.
  2. You need to build trust with your coalition by demonstrating integrity, competence and reliability. You want them to stand with you, hence, they also need to know that they can count on you too.
  3. Support each other. Have your coalition’s best interest at heart and provide support to each other when in difficult situations.


Patrick, creates a coalition with valuable member of his section to stop hostile comments from his supervisor. Together they presented themselves as a single, cohesive unit.

Motivated by self-interest, the boss started treating Patrick better to maintain support from his ally.


When you applied both this approach, (1) value enhancement and (2) coalition formation, you will send a strong message to the supervisor. And it say…

“You need me more than you think, so take better care of me.”

Even a Roman Emperor needs the Senate support to rule supreme.

These approach might sound simple, but implementing it would take hard works and significant effort, not to mention luck.

So, in retrospect, I would focus on improving myself if I’m happens to be under supervisory of an abusive boss. Meaning, focusing on increasing my value in term of knowledge, expertise and value to the team. Also, it gave me better leverage on where my next career move would be.

As the saying goes…

” Life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you hold well. Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. ”


Categories: Reading Notes


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