Have a horribly abusive boss? Here’s what not to do.

Did you know that “researchers found that trying to avoid bosses who had behaved poorly, as well as retaliating against their abusive acts, created a vicious cycle that was linked with subsequent mistreatment?” Shocker – I know.


That’s according to this article over at the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2015/10/16/have-a-horrible-emotionally-abusive-boss-heres-what-not-to-do/

The problem with the article is that it basically tells us what we already know. Dealing with a bullying boss is nearly impossible. Most things you will try to do will make things worse. And the researchers interviewed for the article had no advice for how to actually fix things.

So here’s what they missed. That particular set of researchers don’t have advice on how to get an emotionally abusive boss to stop, however, behavioral psychologists and animal trainers have known for decades how to extinguish unwanted behavior. We use a set of techniques called operant conditioning to extinguish behavior.

Almost all anti-bullying programs teach the first part of this technique, how to not respond (ie: not reward the behavior you want to stop) and to report (increase the cost associated with the behavior). Unfortunately, that’s not the entire technique. All that does is trigger the extinction process. To actually get the behavior to stop – there is more you need to do.

I think the reason most psychologists miss this is because they learn these techniques from a book and are never actually apprenticed in them so they don’t completely understand what is being taught. And if they go into research, they get blinders on to the one thing they are looking at and they are trying to isolate out variables and so aren’t necessarily looking at other things that might be impacting the social or interpersonal dynamic.

Anyway – those of us who have apprenticed in these techniques understand, the first part is to trigger the behavioral extinction. After that you have to manage the extinction process until behavior extinction occurs. The extinction process, once trigger actually includes an escalation of behavior (which in bullying or harassment is experienced as retaliation). This is predicted to occur so it always amazes me that people are shocked when it happens. You have to continue to exert extinction pressure on the behavior during this escalation (done by continuing to withhold reward and increasing costs) and eventually, if you are 100% consistent, the behavior is extinguished.

Extinguishing a behavior is the hardest of the operant conditioning techniques to master. You have to be 100% consistent or you will fail. It’s hard enough to do with a captive animal where you can control all their rewards. It’s impossible to do with a free range human. Even more so when that human is a boss and has real ability to harm you during their behavioral escalation/retaliation.

This is why it’s unwise to try and get a bullying boss to stop. If you have no real ability to increase costs, you won’t succeed. You can, if you know what you are doing and are a skilled trainer, manipulate them into being slightly less horrible, but most people don’t have those skills and the workplace is not the place to learn them as too much is at stake if you get it wrong, which you most likely will if you are just learning these skills. This is why the most common advice is to find another job.

About the best thing you can do in these situations is to develop a consistent response which will weaken the behavior a bit, but won’t eliminate it. Most people respond variably and that makes things worse. We have decades of research on behavioral conditioning that backs this up and it’s exactly what the researchers who work was being reported on in the article references above saw.

The only time you might succeed is if the problem manager is mid-level and there are people above them that can support you. To get their support requires a strategic approach.

While you can’t totally extinguish their bad behavior, you can extinguish their behavior towards one individual or in one situation. This is doable and can be taught to someone who is experiencing it. However, the most likely outcome is that either the victim or the boss will get fired before extinction occurs. So, again, I don’t recommend people even starting this sort of thing until they understand what exactly has to happen to succeed because the worst thing you can do is encourage someone to trigger an extinction without preparing them for the retaliation that will come at them as a result.

I have a lot of online information on this: https://bullyvaccineproject.com/dont-just-report-bullying-have-a-strategy/ as well as online courses on how to deal with abusive behavior in the workplace where I teach the operant conditioning techniques required to control these situations so people at least have a fighting chance. https://humanistlearning.com/category/bullyingharassment/