Bully Bosses and the Coping Power of Voodoo

Individuals who work for bully bosses experience injury to their well-being and job performance. [See our earlier blog — “Working for Bully Bosses 101” — for an introduction to the topic.] It is natural, then, for targets of bullies to look for strategies they can use to cope with their bosses' behavior and with the symptoms that behavior causes.

A series of studies conducted by a Canadian research team[1] has revealed some interesting things on this subject. Professor Lindie Liang of Wilfrid Laurier University and her colleagues asked employees to recall and visualize an incident in which their immediate supervisors were hostile toward them. As you might expect, recollecting such incidents produces feelings of unfairness and resentment. The researchers then offered some of the study participants an opportunity to express their resentment by accessing a website that allowed each of them to harm a voodoo doll that represents his or her boss [see www.dumb.com/voodoodoll]. The researchers found that study participants who had an opportunity to symbolically harm their bosses reported experiencing less resentment compared to study of participants who were not given such an opportunity.

Does this mean that the bullied among us should respond to bully bosses by purchasing voodoo dolls and boxes of pins? While Professor Liang’s studies give us reason to believe that punishing voodoo dolls can offer an immediate sense of relief, it is not clear that this approach produces better long-term outcomes than does such coping strategies as trying to learn and grow from negative life experiences, forgiving perpetrators of hostile behavior or making oneself an unattractive target.

We’ll therefore hold off on recommending that anyone use voodoo dolls until we see evidence suggesting that this approach is superior to the proven alternatives.

[1] Liang, L. H., Brown, D. J., Lian, H., Hanig, S., Ferris, D. L., & Keeping, L. M. (forthcoming). Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice. The Leadership Quarterly.


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