When supervisors engage in abusive supervision: how employees reward poor leadership

What happens when managers treat their employees disrespectfully? A leadership study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal offers a surprising finding on supervisory mobbing at the workplace: employees who are verbally or emotionally abused often blame themselves for it and subsequently help their managers even more. The study on “abusive supervision” addresses the causes and risks of these toxic relationships, and what companies can do to combat them.

Download the press release in German and English (PDF).

“Let’s say your supervisor ignored your emails, yelled at you, or made jokes at your expense. What would you do? Most likely you wouldn’t help your supervisor prepare his or her next presentation. But in many cases, that’s exactly what happens, as our study with 475 participants shows,” says Christian Tröster, Ph.D., one of the study’s two authors and an Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior.

Being mobbed by their supervisor can make employees feel guilty, boosting their supervisor-directed helping

When employees generally consider their relationship with their supervisor to be a positive one, emotional or verbal abuse is likely to make them feel guilty. This can move them to give their supervisor what they want – even if they previously have been treated in a very hurtful way. At first blush, these new findings run counter to the prevailing theory, according to which mobbing at the workplace causes performance to suffer. As the experts stress, when it comes to mobbing on the part of supervisors, the most essential aspect is the quality of the working relationship. Whether employees view their relationship positively or negatively, this behavior can lead to anger, and in turn to an open or concealed refusal to do their jobs properly. But only those who believe they have a positive relationship respond with compliance.

Abusive supervision is hard to detect

“Abusive supervision is a serious problem for employees and companies alike. But in the concrete working situation, it’s often hard to detect. Supervisors may even think to themselves: I’m doing a good and effective job, and my team likes me. This can create a dangerous cycle of abusive supervision,” warns the study’s co-author Dr. Niels Van Quaquebeke, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior.

Especially those organizations that solely rate supervisors on the basis of their team’s performance can easily overlook important indicators of abusive supervision. The impacts can be considerable: employees often develop psychological problems that affect them at work, at home and in social settings. As for the companies they work at, the effects can include absenteeism, health problems and potentially expensive legal claims. Abusive supervision can be found at 85 percent of all companies in the German-speaking area, and one in five is characterized by an especially toxic leadership climate. This was the conclusion that the Universities of Bielefeld, Düsseldorf and Trier, and the Berlin School of Economics and Law arrived at, drawing on data from the employer-rating platform Kununu (Kununu blog entry in German, original study 2020).

Promotions? Only for supervisors who communicate respectfully

What can companies do to avoid these negative repercussions and protect their employees? According to the two authors: stop evaluating supervisors exclusively on the basis of their team’s performance, and start giving employees the chance to directly rate their supervisor’s leadership style. Ideally, treating their employees respectfully should be a prerequisite for any supervisor to receive a promotion. As for employees, they should avoid getting drawn into a downward spiral of mobbing and self-blame. To do so, they can internally define a certain “line in the sand” that their supervisor should never cross. If that line is crossed, ideally they should discuss it directly with their supervisor, since, the experts claim, many supervisors are unaware of how they are perceived by their employees.

The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, is based on an online experiment with 200 participants and a diary study with 275 participants. For the latter, each participant made two diary entries a day for ten workdays.

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