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What can you do if your boss is a bully?

In honor of "National Boss's Day," let's take a moment to recognize all the hardworking CEOs, managers, supervisors, (ahem, editors) and other fearless leaders out there who do their utmost every day of the week — nights, too, and even weekends — to make the rest of us well and truly miserable.

Abusive bosses have a range of reasons to beat up on employees, said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business and co-author of a recent study that explores the dynamics of bullying in the workplace.

Perhaps the boss is himself bullied in his job or treated unfairly in other ways by the organization. Or perhaps he had a bad day — or a good day, made that much sweeter by the opportunity to intimidate, humiliate, demean or terrorize. (The masculine pronoun here is appropriate because, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, most bully bosses are men.) Or maybe some employees ask for it, just a little, through their abject performance and dubious hygiene.

But for anyone forced to deal with an abusive supervisor, the obvious question is: How do you stop it? And at last there's an answer: You can't.

The cost of being a mean boss 05:00

Hurst and her fellow researchers spent six months talking to 244 employees in a range of organizations to observe how people's interactions with an abusive supervisor affected the relationship. Would standing up to the bully help, or is it better to quietly suffer the indignities while just trying to get on with the task at hand?

Neither, it turns out. Both approaches — attack and retreat — generally make things worse, Hurst said.

But wait! What if there is another way, some clever office stratagem that the Ivory Tower experts, not schooled like us grunts in the university of working life, have overlooked? What if bullied employees, rather than hone their resentment to a point sharp enough to punch through a door, were instead to redouble their devotion to the cause and even try to make their supervisor's life sweller and more rewarding in every way?

C'mon, work with me. That might entail, say, burning the midnight oil to draft a genius memo your boss can claim as her own, offering to work weekends until that killer project is done or rising uncomplainingly to the challenge when a critical assignment is handed down at the last minute. Work through lunch? Can do. Cancel that vacation? Hey, whatever it takes. Surely that would soften even the flintiest boss's stony heart?

Nope. Hurst said even more "heroic" efforts by employees to act like good corporate citizens usually fail to appease bullying bosses. That may say something not only about the general character of bullies, but also about the changing nature of work in the U.S., where employees are expected to go to whatever lengths are necessary to get the job done, Hurst said.

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"Organizations nowadays expect 100 percent commitment from employees and expect them to go above and beyond," she said. "That kind of behavior used to be heroic, but now it's commonplace. The thinking is you have to do it just to remain competitive, so that doesn't get you a lot of brownie points."

It doesn't do organizations any good, either. Demoralized employees often fly the coop, resulting in higher turnover and training costs. "Organizations let it go, but may not realize just how much it's hurting them," Hurst said.

Although it might not make a boss any less abusive, the researchers did find that some employees took comfort in at least telling the offending supervisor that they don't appreciate being flogged. Trying to deepen personal and professional ties with co-workers can also offer a measure of consolation.

After all, misery loves company. Not that I'm not loving every minute of it, boss! Here's your dry-cleaning. And have a great day.

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