Study: Hurting a voodoo doll that represents our bad boss makes us feel better

When a toxic workplace has pushed us to our limits, the constant yelling and undermining may drive us to get even —even if the payback comes at great cost to our careers. Why?

To figure out what drives employees to the extremes of retaliation, a new experimental study sought to give employees haunted by abused supervisors an outlet for their frustrations without having them resort to fists. Researchers recruited 229 employees and asked them to take their job frustrations on an online voodoo doll representing their abusive boss. Apparently, when your boss is a pain in the neck, sticking pins into a doll’s neck that represents our boss soothes us.

Sticking pins in your voodoo boss doll helps us cope

The harmless symbolic act of retaliation had an outsized impact on people’s sense that a wrong had been righted. Participants who recalled abusive bosses and were not given the opportunity to symbolically retaliate against the bad boss had “significantly higher implicit injustice perceptions compared to participants in the other conditions.”

“Although the abusive supervision literature has typically presented subordinate retaliation as dysfunctional reactions that should be discouraged, in the current paper, we offer a counter narrative by outlining a beneficial side of retaliation,” the study states.

The researchers do not want us to think that they are advocating for employee rebellions, though, noting that it can have “have significant organizational costs.” To “break the spiral of incivility” that causes employees to fight back, the researchers recommend implementing a zero-tolerance policy around abusive bosses. That way, employees know that justice will get served and abuse will not go unchecked.

The finding shows us that employees are not solely driven by deviant behavior when they lash out —they are driven by a need to restore their worldview that the workplace can be a fair and just place. Retaliation, even through the experimental use of a voodoo dolls, provides an outlet for subjugated employees to restore perceptions of justice.

Of course, the solution is not to give abused employees voodoo dolls, but to interrogate why they would need one in the first place.

“To increase justice perceptions, employers can focus on eliminating abusive and dysfunctional leader behaviors in the workplace,” Lindie Liang, one of the study’s authors, told Ladders.