Taking Back Control From an Abusive Boss

Topic(s): conflict, Counter-Productive Work Behavior, job performance, leadership, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Surviving an Abusive Supervisor: The Joint Roles of Conscientiousness and Coping Strategies
Authors: A.K. Nandkeolyar, J.A. Shaffer, A. Li, S. Ekkirala, J. Bagger
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Abusive supervision is a serious issue in the workplace, and much more prevalent than people may realize. Much research has been done on this topic– partly because the behavior is on the increase, but also because of its devastating effects on morale and productivity.

In considering personality and the choice of coping strategies, new research (Nandkeolyar et al., 2014) reveals insights that can help employees maintain performance while surviving an abusive supervisor.


When employees are confronted with a stressful event, they first decide how this event impacts their general well-being. Second, they decide if something can be done to minimize the negative effects, choosing an appropriate coping strategy to deal with the situation.

So what coping strategy might employees utilize in dealing with the stress caused by an abusive supervisor? Either they would directly address the issue and take initiative to solve their problem (this is called an active coping strategy), or they may prefer avoiding the issue until the worst passes (this is called an avoidance strategy).

The question is, will one of these strategies work better than the other, or is there more complexity involved in effectively handling such a situation?


The current study suggests that personality has a more significant effect on performance than the choice of coping strategy when dealing with an abusive supervisor. However, the research does say that avoidance strategies will negatively affect employee performance in the long run.

That being said, researchers found that conscientiousness (one of the Big 5 personality traits) influences how well people work under difficult circumstances, no matter how these employees choose to deal with it. In this case, conscientiousness refers to how people control themselves, preferring planned behavior over more spontaneous expressions.

The work performance of employees who ranked high on conscientiousness and used various coping strategies wasn’t affected nearly as much as those who were low on conscientiousness and using various strategies. This highlights the major role conscientiousness plays in helping people maintain their performance, even when choosing different ways of coping with an abusive supervisor.


This research can be useful for an organization’s selection criteria, as it seems that certain kinds of people are naturally more adept at maintaining their performance in the face of stressful work environments and demanding superiors. Also, employees struggling with an abusive supervisor may want to stop avoiding the issue and take an active role in addressing the problem, as the study shows that failure to do so may lead to a reduction in job performance.


Nandkeolyar, A. K., Shaffer, J. A., Li, A., Ekkirala, S., & Bagger, J. (2013). Surviving an Abusive Supervisor: The Joint Roles of Conscientiousness and Coping Strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 138-150.