A new University of Haifa study shows that employees prefer to keep their distance from an abusive boss even though direct communication would be the most effective tactic in terms of emotional wellbeing.

Prof. Dana Yagil  of the University of Haifa’s Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences, who headed the study, said that the strategies being used by employees to cope with the stress of an abusive boss are actually causing even more distress.

Yagil, along with Prof. Hasida Ben-Zur and Inbal Tamir, examined five types of strategies used for coping with the stress factor of abusive treatment: directly communicating with the abusive supervisor to discuss the problems; using forms of ingratiation (for example, doing favors, using flattery and compliance); seeking support from others; avoiding contact with the supervisor; and mentally restructuring the abuse in a way that decreases its threat.

The study found that abusive treatment from a superior was most strongly associated with avoiding contact — disengaging from the supervisor as much as possible and to seeking social support. However, avoidance and seeking support resulted in the employees’ experiencing negative emotions, while communication with the supervisor — which employees do less – was the strategy most strongly related to employees’ positive emotions.

“It is understandable that employees wish to reduce their contact with an abusive boss to a minimum,” says Dr. Yagil. “However, this strategy further increases the employee’s stress because it is associated with a sense of weakness and perpetuates their fear of the supervisor.”

Earlier studies in this field have examined the effect of abusive supervision on employee performance, but the University of Haifa study focused on the effect of the different coping strategies on employee wellbeing.