2 research-backed strategies employees can use against a bullying boss

When your boss is making you miserable, too many of us grit our teeth and bear it, thinking we have no power to fight back. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 65.6 million U.S. employees said they have bosses who intimidate, humiliate and verbally abuse them.

But a new study in the Academy of Management Journal found that there are effective coping strategies employees can use against an abusive boss that do not involve throwing up a white flag and quitting. Instead of passively avoiding the problem, or aggressively confronting your boss, business management researchers found that employees can leverage their value to the boss’ goals to tactfully address the bad behavior without risking their careers.

Strategy 1: Make yourself indispensable to your boss

Citing studies on abusive bosses, researchers explained that the passive option of distancing yourself from your boss is less likely to work because abusive behavior is more likely to persist than stop on its own. Bullying bosses rarely experience sudden changes of heart. Instead of waiting it out, researchers propose overcoming your fight-or-flight instinct by working more closely with your bullying boss and enhancing your value to them.

How do you do this? You need to work above and beyond to learn unique skills your boss cannot easily get elsewhere: “The strategy is for the follower to make himself or herself indispensable to the leader by demonstrating specific knowledge, skills, abilities, or resources that are valuable to the leader,” the study advises. “For example, the follower may take the initiative to acquire a new skill or obtain critical information that is important to the leader.”

When your boss depends on you, they are motivated to change positively, not out of the kindness of their hearts, but out of self-interest to keep their team productive. In two field studies on employee-supervisor relationships in a real estate firm and at a commercial bank, the researchers found that “the mutual high dependence between managers and followers is characterized by positive interactions, reduced use of threats and coercion, and more importantly, enhanced stability and congeniality in the dyadic relationship.”

When your boss knows they need you, they are less likely to act out against you and become more likely to listen to your needs.

Strategy 2: Team up with coworkers to confront your boss

Researchers called this strategy “coalition formation.” If you are feeling vulnerable to a bullying boss, play the numbers game and find allies with top performers in your office to defend you.

Multiple employees presenting a united front have more leverage to confront a single hostile boss, the researchers found: “The leader may rely on a specific follower in the team for key performance outcomes (e.g., sales promotion). If the focal follower is able to convince a highly valued follower to form a united, coordinated front against the leader, the leader may view the focal follower as a ‘single-unit’ with the valued follower.”

Employees with bad bosses are not as helpless as they think

Of course, managing your boss should not be up to employees alone. But this study should give hope to employees suffering quietly that they have more power and agency than they think to fight back. Rather than seeing themselves as defenseless victims, employees can deploy creative tactics like value enhancement and coalition formation to reduce supervisor abuse, so that they can focus on doing their actual job.

Writing about their study for Harvard Business Review, coauthors Hui Liao, Elijah Wee, and Dong Liu said that when employees show their combined value to their boss, the knowledge shifts the power balance back in the employees’ favor: “Taken together, value enhancement and coalition formation send a strong message to the supervisor: ‘You need me more than you think, so take better care of me.’ ”