How Employees respond to abusive supervision.

Posted on under Today's research

A recent study examined the damaging impact abusive supervision has in the workplace including the ways employees respond with retaliatory behavior, which lowers productivity.

What the researchers say: Abusive supervision refers to subordinates’ perceptions of supervisors engaging in the sustained hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact. It can affect employees’ well-being, health, and work performance.

Previous research has shown that abusive supervision affects more than 13 percent of U.S. workers. Costs incurred by corporations because of absenteeism, health care costs and lost productivity has been estimated at $23.8 billion annually.

“Abusive supervision in the workplace is quite a prevalent phenomenon, and employees should not have to suffer from this,” said the lead author. “Our study shows that there are certain costs associated with abusive supervisors and even the leaders who engage in abusive supervision do not benefit from it. We want to convey this important message to organization leaders in order to have them stop these kinds of behaviors.”

The study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, used a statistical technique called meta-analysis. It combines the results of findings from 79 previous studies to get a systematic understanding of the relationship between abusive supervision and subordinates’ retaliatory responses.

The researchers found that even though the immediate source of injustice is the supervisor, abused employees perceive injustice from both their supervisor and organization so extend their scope of retaliation to both.

“It will cause problems for the managers who engage in abusive supervision and, overall, it will threaten the well-being of the organization because the employees will engage in organizational deviance, such as arriving to work late or having low productivity,” the researchers said.

They also found that those who experience abusive supervision tend to emulate such abusive behaviors and even bully their co-workers. “Employees see their leader as a role model in the workplace and they tend to follow suit,” the lead author said. “This is a social learning effect.”

The researchers also explored whether the impact of abusive supervision on employees’ perceptions of justice and deviant behavior differ based on cultural values.

For example “power distance” is a national cultural value in which people tolerate power differences in interpersonal relationships. In countries with lower power distance, such as the U.S. and much of Europe, people tend to feel that power should be equally distributed, and there’s less tolerance of abusive supervisors.

In countries with higher power distance, such as China and Japan, people tend to have more tolerance for the inequalities of power distributions.

However, the researchers said: “That does not mean that leaders in any country can engage in abusive supervision. Employees still feel it is unjust and they will all engage in retaliatory behavior. It’s just not as strong (in some cultures).”

The researchers noted that the cross-cultural aspects of this study have important implications for international companies.

For example, if a manager from a higher power distance country is assigned to work in a lower power distance country, he should be aware that employees will be less tolerant of abusive behaviors due to their lower power distance values.

The study recommends that organizations use leadership development programs and pay more attention to employee feedback. These, they say, may help reduce the occurrence of abusive supervision in the workplace.

So what: In many ways, this is a really important study. As the workplace becomes more stressful abusive supervision is bound to become more prevalent. Studies in previous TRs have shown that even the most benign supervisors and leaders can become abusive, even unethical under stress. This is the result of glutamate reduction. The body, the system, becomes self-focused and unable to see the harm that their words or actions may have on others.

The other interesting finding is that what matters is employees’ perception of abusive supervision. Again under stress perceptions change and even a good supervisor can be seen as abusive by his or her followers. They may be factually unjustified in taking revenge on the organization, but their increasing self-focus will justify their actions.

What now: The only cure for this—either the abusive supervisor or the wrong perception—is a systemic reduction of the stress level of the organization. As I have said many times, the initial steps towards this are not difficult or expensive but can be very powerful.