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Don't Avoid Your Abusive Boss!

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Feedback Avoidance Leads to Burnout

Hate your boss?  You are not alone!  Many employees report having less than admirable relationships with their boss with many reporting that their boss is down-right abusive.  Abusive supervision is defined as “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact” (Tepper, 2000, p. 178).  Although it is well known that abusive supervision leads to a variety of negative individual and organizational outcomes such as decreased job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and well-being and increased turnover, burnout, and hostility in the work environment (Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001; Tepper, Henle, Lambert, Giacalone, & Duffy, 2008; Tepper, 2000), less research has focused on the effects of the coping mechanisms that employees use to combat the abusive supervision.  Many employees are advised to “run away” and “avoid” their abusive bosses at all costs, but how efficacious is this advice? Should employees actively try to avoid their abusive bosses?  A new study investigating feedback avoidance provides some guidance on the effect of this particular coping mechanism on employees (Whitman, Halbesleben, & Holmes, 2014). 

One of my favorite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, presents a vivid account of how far employees may go to avoid their abusive boss.  In one scene, Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) returns to the office and the employees fall over themselves not to cross Miranda’s path.  In a hilariously conspicuous way, one employee gets off an elevator as Miranda gets on and other employees turn around to go the opposite way when they see Miranda approach a corridor as they approach it.  Certainly, it is easy to see why advising employees to avoid their abusive bosses may seem like good advice at first glance, but this advice may be particularly problematic for employees. 

Feedback Avoidance Leads to More Burnout

Conservation of resources theory posits that people have a finite amount of resources to deal with situations and will attempt to preserve and increase those resources to avoid experiencing resource deficits (Hobfoll, 1989).  Similar to previous studies, we found that abusive supervision did lead to emotional exhaustion (burnout), but remarkably, employees who engaged in feedback avoidance behaviors in an effort to circumvent their abusive bosses, actually experienced more emotional exhaustion (burnout) than those who did not (Whitman et al., 2014).  Our results confirmed that employees who tried to avoid their abusive bosses experienced what is known as a loss spiral.  The principle of resource loss (gain) spirals explains that when valued resources are lost (gained), then that opens a pathway to exacerbate (improve) the situation.  So when employees experienced abuse, it put a strain on their resources that left them emotionally exhausted.  However, diverting valuable cognitive resources to develop and execute plans to avoid their bosses resulted in further losses of their resources, which led to more emotional exhaustion.   Unbeknownst to them, the employees were engaging in a behavior that made their situation worse; they were in a loss spiral.  This is particularly problematic because not only are these employees more burned out, they are also missing out on valuable feedback on their job performance, that left unchecked, could lead to further problems for the employees.  As such, it seems that advising employees to avoid their abusive supervisors might do more harm than good to them so employees would do well not to use this as a coping mechanism for abusive supervision.  So what should you do when you have an abusive supervisor?  Click here to read some tips on how employees can more productively deal with abusive supervisors.    

*Dr. Holmes can be reached on Twitter @OHIV.


Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 64–80. doi:10.1037//1076-8998.6.1.64

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513–524. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.44.3.513

Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43(2), 178–190. doi:10.2307/1556375

Tepper, B. J., Henle, C. A., Lambert, L. S., Giacalone, R. A., & Duffy, M. K. (2008). Abusive supervision and subordinates’ organization deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(4), 721–32. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.4.721

Whitman, M. V., Halbesleben, J. R. B., & Holmes IV, O. (2014). Abusive supervision and feedback avoidance : The mediating role of emotional exhaustion. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, 38–53. doi:10.1002/job

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