Abusive supervision, which covers the sustained display of hostile leadership behaviors, is gaining increased academic attention in recent years. There is strong empirical support linking abusive supervision to a myriad of negative outcomes for subordinates. In the present study, we develop a complementing perspective and suggest that on top of the negative effects abusive supervision may also entail beneficial outcomes. Drawing from cognitive dissonance theory, we argue that targets of abusive supervision reduce the dissonance caused from experienced hostility by processing it as justified. Justified abuse then ignites pro-organizational reactions by increasing subordinates’ felt obligation towards the leader. Guided by our cognitive dissonance perspective, we also expect the positive indirect effect of abusive supervision on felt obligation to be weaker in conditions of subordinate wrongdoing (low dissonance) and stronger in conditions of no wrongdoing (high dissonance).
We test our assumptions across two studies. In Study 1, we applied an experience sampling design and surveyed 100 employees twice a day over a ten-day period (986 daily observations). As expected, analyses revealed a positive and significant indirect effect of abusive supervision on felt obligation via increased justified abuse. In Study 2, we applied an experimental 2x2 vignette method to replicate and extend findings. The sample consisted of 539 employees. We manipulated leadership behavior and level of dissonance (subordinate wrongdoing vs. no wrongdoing). Again, we found a positive indirect effect of abusive supervision on felt obligation. Consistent with our theorizing, we also found the indirect effect to be weaker when subordinates had committed a work-related mistake (low dissonance) and stronger when they had done nothing wrong (high dissonance). These results indicate that the consequences of abusive supervision are more nuanced than previously assumed. We discuss implications for theory and future research.
(Co-author: Prof. D.-N. Gansen-Ammann)
Andreas Wihler is Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior with a PhD in Industrial- and Organizational Psychology. His research focuses on the role of organizational politics and different leadership behaviors. He is also interested in the effects of personality and motivation and its interplay with social skill on job performance and career success. Andreas works in international research collaborations with various organizations and received funding for his research from both the DAAD and the DFG. His research has been published in journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Management, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Personnel Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and Leadership Quarterly.
Kai Bormann is Assistant Professor of Management and Family Firm Research at Bielefeld University. He received his PhD from TU Dortmund University. In his research, he focuses on leadership (abusive supervision, ethical and transformational leadership), team processes, and the organizational function of family firm history. His research has been published in outlets such as The Leadership Quarterly, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, and Applied Psychology: An international Review.