How Abusive Supervision Affects Workers

Abusive supervision in the workplace produces dysfunctional consequences for subordinates, triggering intentions to quit and displaced aggression toward others at work, according to a study from the Naveen Jindal School of Management at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Abusive supervision is a problem that prevails over multiple organizations, regardless of location or industry, said O. Dorian Boncoeur, a doctoral student in international management studies and co-author of the paper. Existing literature has shown how it affects employees’ performance and commitment, but how employees respond to and cope with abusive supervision is less understood.

“Researchers are fascinated by this topic because these are behaviors from supervisors in which they repeatedly berate or disrespect their employees verbally and nonverbally,” he said. “It has various effects on these employees, visible and not visible.”

The paper, published online in September in the Journal of Business Ethics, is forthcoming in a print edition of the journal. Dr. Orlando C. Richard, associate professor of organizations, strategy and international management, and Dr. David L. Ford Jr., professor emeritus of organizations, strategy and international management, also are co-authors of the study.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 324 employees and direct supervisors working at privately owned manufacturing firms in southern China and interviewed the firms’ presidents. Dr. Hao Chen of Tsinghua University in Beijing, a co-author of the paper who received her PhD in international management studies from UT Dallas in 2011, was responsible for the data collection.

The authors found that when employees face abusive supervision, it triggers an intention to quit their job. When employees intend to quit but still are working at their jobs, they become emotionally disconnected from others at work and are less likely to value their co-workers, supervisors and the organization.

From left: Doctoral student O. Dorian Boncoeur, Dr. David L. Ford Jr. and Dr. Orlando C. Richard are co-authors of the study about the impact of abusive supervision in the workplace.

“Chances are the employee has feelings of anger, and they are disgruntled,” Boncoeur said. “It takes time for one to actually quit his or her job after experiencing bad events at work, so when the employee doesn’t leave immediately, he or she is more likely to become more prone to interpersonal aggressions toward other employees.”

The study also examined how employees’ perception of the organization’s human resources climate and their power-distance orientation affected the relationship between abusive supervision and their intention to quit their jobs.

Power distance is a cultural value that captures the extent to which people tolerate power differences in interpersonal relationships and their institutions.

High power-distance individuals tend to view the differences as fixed, so they have more tolerance for power inequalities between supervisors and subordinates. Low power-distance individuals tend to believe that power should be equally distributed.

According to the study, employees with low power-distance orientation may not be as likely to quit when dealing with abusive supervision. On the other hand, high power-distance employees, who tend to prefer direction from their supervisors, may develop stronger intentions to quit.

It takes time for one to actually quit his or her job after experiencing bad events at work, so when the employee doesn’t leave immediately, he or she is more likely to become more prone to interpersonal aggressions toward other employees.

O. Dorian Boncoeur, a UT Dallas doctoral student in international management studies and co-author of the paper

“This is in stark contrast to what previous research has found. We found that high power-distance employees likely perceive a violation of the social exchange relationship when their supervisors are abusive, rather than supportive, thus bolstering their intentions to quit and aggression toward co-workers,” Richard said.

Furthermore, when employees perceive their organizations to be less supportive through their human resources practices, those dealing with an abusive supervisor are more likely to want to leave their job. This is not the case when employees perceive their firms’ human resources practices as supportive, although this situation ultimately results in displaced aggression toward co-workers.

The researchers determined that organizations might reduce the negative impacts of abusive supervision by creating a supportive human resources climate where employees can cope with abuse more effectively.

“Companies should provide certain types of training and development that encourage employee learning and have a climate where supervisors feel like the company cares about them,” Ford said. “Organizations need to be mindful and do audits periodically to see how employees feel and correct anything that needs attention.”

Organizations can’t always predict which managerial hires will become abusive, so education is key, Boncoeur said.

“You may have a supervisor who would not define his or her actions as abusive,” he said. “If organizations implement supportive human resources training, it will start a conversation, and supervisors can better understand what these behaviors are and their effects.”

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