Coping with an abusive boss: That voodoo that you do

If you’re angry about being treated like dirt by a terrible boss, then you may want to take it out on a voodoo doll. At least that’s what a study published earlier this year in The Leadership Quarterly suggests might be helpful.

In “Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice” (abstract here), a team of researchers led by Dr. Lindie Liang (Wilfrid Laurier U, Canada) sought to measure whether “symbolic retaliation” might help to reduce feelings of being unjustly mistreated by an abusive supervisor.

They started with the common sense understanding that directly retaliating against a boss for perceived injustices at work might not be the best idea for many reasons. Next, they hypothesized that engaging in “symbolic retaliation,” such as taking out frustrations on a voodoo doll representing an abusive boss, might nevertheless help to reduce those feelings of injustice.

It turns out they were correct in their hypothesis. In a study involving 229 subjects, taking out one’s anger on a voodoo doll reduced feelings of workplace injustice by one third.

The research article itself is not available without subscription or library access, but reporter Sarah Knapton provides a nice summary in The Telegraph newspaper:

For the study, the participants were asked to recall and visualise a workplace interaction which had involved abuse from a supervisor. Some were then asked to retaliate using a voodoo doll . . . . Those who had been allowed to stick pins in their virtual boss were far less likely to still feel bitter . . . .

The article quotes Prof. Liang:

“We found a simple and harmless symbolic act of retaliation can make people feel like they’re getting even and restoring their sense of fairness. . . . Symbolically retaliating against an abusive boss can benefit employees psychologically by allowing them to restore their sense of justice in the workplace.”

And in related news, retailers report that sales of voodoo dolls have jumped 1,000 percent…just kidding, I think.

3 responses

  1. Symbolic retaliation in lieu of no practical legal cause of action against bullying and abusive supervisors? Might assuaging feelings of injustice symbolically weaken one’s desire to protest the injustice of leaving workplace bullying victims without legal recourse?

    “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~Elie Wiesel

    Workplace abusive behavior, hostile and aggressive behavior, lying, sexual harassment, sexist behavior and bullying–on the part of management or coworkers–are indeed workplace injustices. Particularly unfair and unjust in the workplace, are hostile and aggressive, In-your-face PC rhetoric robotic bullies and their smug, elitist, self-righteous and accusatory attitudes. The election of this fake president is largely on them. It wasn’t just the right wing reactionaries, conservatives and republicans who were fed up with the abuses of political correctness, people across the whole political spectrum, including scores of liberal pundits, have pointed to Trump’s posturing as an anti-PC savior as energizing the nationwide backlash against “those smug, elitist left-coast liberals”.

    As a liberal, progressive Democrat I have been bullied, marginalized, and confronted by hostile, more-politically-correct-than-thou bullying coworkers in the “professional” workplace and in “professional” job interviews. I have been sexistly and racially PC harassed as a white male. And I am aware that dozens of liberal pundits have written that this kind of behavior experienced across the United States partly engendered the great 2016 election backlash of white, working class males.

    My reaction to the perpetration of the regressive-liberal PC pestilence was not to try and stand with the reactionary racial and sexual identity groups as far too many misguided people have done, but to bravely (and I mean it sometimes does take courage to not fail to protest against PC bullying) focus on the necessity to have a cause of legal action that protected AND non-protected people can use against these kinds of bullying in the workplace.

    You can go ahead and be any flavor of PC you like without bullying others about it. How would you like to be told that you didn’t get the job because, “we already have too many WASPS”? And to top it, EEOC basically provides no legal cause of action for non-protected classes. The institution could have essentially hired anyone they wanted. The racist, and religionist discrimination was just sheer regressive-liberal bullying and I should have actually gotten the job or received non-symbolic, but actual, compensation…for the completely unnecessary pain and suffering from actual BULLYING!

    There! I think this actual attempt to articulate and protest and communicate may have temporarily reduced and settled a bit my feelings of being unjustly mistreated.

    On second thought, where’s those pins?

  2. The more we reduce feelings of injustice that are a predictable outcome of abusive behaviour, the more we enable continued abuse. This is useful for those who are individuals who have no recourse to effectively address the underlying problem and those who seek to support them, as members of groups it undermines efforts to identify and address the legitimacy of those feelings and to direct efforts toward addressing and preventing their cause.

    Symptoms are valuable in diagnosing and treating illness, we must recognize suppressing them may well lead to unwise activity and failure to address the underlying disease. Feeling good does not mean that all is well.

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