Taking control back: Surviving an Abusive Supervisor

Topic(s): conflict, Counter-Productive Work Behavior, job performance, 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, and much more prevalent than you might realize.

A lot of research has been done on this topic– partly because it is on the increase, but also because of its devastating effects on morale and productivity.

In looking at personality and the choice of coping strategies, new research reveals insights that can help employees maintain performance while surviving an abusive supervisor.


The transactional stress model details a 2-step process in individuals confronted with a stressful event: First, they decide how this event impacts their general well-being; secondly, they decide if something can be done to minimize negative effects, choosing an appropriate coping strategy to deal with the situation.

So what coping strategy would you employ in dealing with the stress caused by an abusive supervisor? Either you would directly address the issue and take initiative to solve your problem (i.e. active coping strategies), or you may prefer avoiding the issue until the worst passes (i.e. avoidance strategies).

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



A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests personality has a more significant effect on performance than the choice of coping strategy when dealing with an abusive supervisor. However, the research does suggest 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 you work under such circumstances, no matter you 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.

But, on a more personal level, those employees struggling with an abusive supervisor may want to stop avoiding the issue, as the study shows that their work performance will inevitably suffer.