Study shows how employees deal with horrible bosses 

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These are the measures that employees take to cope with toxic work environments. 

A study has found that, in order to cope with destructive leadership, employees resort to distancing themselves from the situation by avoiding interactions with their managers while at work. They may also resign, ignore the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, or “shut off” emotionally. 

The study was done by consulting psychologist Dr Beatrix Brink, who obtained her doctorate in psychology at Stellenbosch and sought to explore the measures that employees take to cope in toxic work environments. 

Beatrix interviewed employees, mostly women, in the manufacturing, retail, financial services, community services and public sector. She asked them to complete the Psychological Capital Questionnaire which focuses on the individual’s ability to harness psychological resources such as hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism.

In addition to the aforementioned behaviours, Beatrix says employees’ coping mechanisms could be both positive, such as driving them to exercises, and negative, manifesting in habitual overeating, for example. 

“(Some) tried to find solace in religion or spirituality; sought social and family support which included confiding in friends and family; resorted to professional services, such as seeing a psychologist and asking assistance from their organisation’s human resource, mentoring and wellness services; and attempted to re-direct their thinking by looking for anything positive they could take away from the experience,” says Beatrix.

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“With varying degrees of success, they tried to stop the downward spiral of feeling overwhelmed and powerless. They did this by asserting themselves and seeking pathways to circumvent the effects of the manager’s destructive behaviour. They also tried to equip themselves with knowledge by seeking information on coping with destructive leader behaviour.”

One thing that was consistent among most respondents was that the toxic environment they operated in invariably led to employees experiencing self-doubt and questioning the skills and abilities they previously held in high regard.

“They became fearful and demotivated, experiencing emotions ranging from feeling stupid, tearful to anger. They became preoccupied with the experience and struggled to concentrate. They stopped doing the things that gave them joy and some even started to mirror the manager’s negative behaviour in their personal relationships.”

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