Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 309
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Abusive Supervision

Research explores ways to derail the negative impact of abusive supervision.

Football coaches don�t teach ball carriers to fumble the ball. There are no classes in it, no performance reviews rating players as good or poor fumblers. Coaches preach against fumbling, yet fumbles occur regularly. That�s also true with abusive supervision.

�Congratulations, Jones, you get the stupid employee of the week award. Give him a hand boys.�

We don�t want our employees to be abused by the people we assign to supervise them, and when it happens, we probably won�t hear about it. We won�t know when our supervisors ridicule their employees, give them the silent treatment, remind them of past failures, invade their privacy, break promises, fail to give proper credit, wrongfully assign blame, or blow up in fits of temper. We may never know about it, but our employees know about it. They know all about it, and sometimes, they react.

Direct retaliation may seem to be the most likely reaction, but it isn�t. Withdrawing from the abuser by quitting one�s job may also seem likely, but that isn�t true either. It is more common for employees to strike out against their employer by engaging in organizationally deviant acts.

Employees control critical resources. They use, or abuse, everything we buy: office supplies, tools, raw materials, the buildings they occupy, and the finished products and services they produce. They control their own time and effort (the most expensive thing we buy), and they control community goodwill by their comments about us off the job. They can steal from us, perpetrate frauds, and betray us to our competitors. Clearly, employers have a lot at stake.

If you browse through training catalogues, you�ll see quite a few entries directed toward educating supervisors. It is a big business, and one would think that it is the only way an employer can address the issue of abusive supervision: train supervisors enough, and abusive supervision won�t occur. Of course, as football coaches know, that isn�t true.

Bennett Tepper, from Georgia State University studies abusive supervision, and recently, he completed two studies which carefully examined the link with organizationally destructive acts. He found a more complicated path than we had previously understood. It turns out that it is not a simple act of retaliation.

Tepper studied 490 employees who completed a series of his surveys. He found a direct influence of abusive supervision on feelings of commitment toward one�s employer. That was a strong link. He also found a strong link between low commitment and destructive, deviant acts. But this link was only strong when abused employees felt their coworkers approved of their deviant acts or actually performed deviant acts themselves. If coworker support for deviance was lacking, the link from abusive supervision to deviant acts was broken, and deviant acts didn�t occur.

Tepper explains that the path from abuse to destructive retaliation takes two steps. First, commitment is destroyed. Abused employees don�t care about the welfare of their employer. Second, abused employees must get the tacit approval of their coworkers to commit deviant acts. When these two conditions occur, supervisor abuse will hurt you.

Professor Tepper found the actual incidence of both abuse and deviant actions by employees was low. It was an infrequent problem according to the self-reports of the people he surveyed. However, one is left to wonder if the incidence of abuse and retaliation is evenly distributed. It might be common in some businesses and rare in others.

Tepper sees two preventive measures business owners can take to protect their businesses. The first involves employee commitment. He advises owners to strengthen employee commitment, and he lists several actions that will accomplish this. One is to react strongly to supervisory abuse when it is exposed. This lets employees know that abuse is not condoned by the owners. Another is to hold employees in high esteem by reminding them of the importance of their contribution and thanking them for it. He also suggests that owners communicate a concern for their employees� well-being through their attention to benefit programs.

A second preventive measure Tepper recommends involves a positive ethical climate. He believes such a climate can be fostered by creating a clear code of conduct that describes deviant behaviors and explains the costs these behaviors incur. He recommends harsh treatment for deviant role models, and he advises that new employees be introduced to expectations about deviant behavior as part of their orientation. He specifically lists these deviant actions: taking property from work, falsifying receipts for reimbursement, abusing leave time and breaks, tardiness, wasting time on the job, discussing confidential matters with outsiders, refusing to follow instructions, intentionally slowing the work, drug and/or alcohol use on the job, dragging out work to get overtime, and excessive daydreaming at work. Application of such a code to both managers and employees will foster a positive ethical climate, and together with strengthened employee commitment, these two factors will discourage deviant, destructive acts.

Reference: Tepper, Bennett, Christine Henle, Lisa Lambert, Robert Giacalone, and MichelleDuffy (2008) Abusive Supervision and Subordinates� Organization Deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(4), 721-732.

© Management Resources

Back to home page