Bosses unhappy at home wreak havoc at work

If your boss is on your back these days, don’t automatically blame him or her. You might want to blame their families.

“While employees often take out the frustrations they experience at work on their families, when a supervisor is distracted by dealing with issues at home, the stress and frustration created by those things often get directed at employees. In our data, female supervisors were the ones most affected,” says Brian McCormick, an assistant professor of management at Northern Illinois University.

McCormick is one of five authors of a unique piece of research titled, “My Family Made Me Do It: A Cross-Domain, Self-Regulatory Perspective on Antecedents to Abusive Supervision.” The study will appear in an upcoming edition of the Academy of Management Journal.

While only 14 percent of U.S. employees report being a victim of abusive supervision (defined as non-physical aggression by supervisors), the costs of such behavior are huge. For victims, fallout ranges from poor performance and subversive behavior at work to alcoholism and a deteriorating family life at home. Meanwhile, corporations lose approximately $23.8 billion annually due to lost productivity, grievance procedures and health care costs stemming from abusive supervision.

Despite those costs, little research has been done into the root causes of abusive behavior by supervisors, and what limited study there has been focused on work-related factors. Because of the increasing overlap between work and home lives, McCormick and his colleagues chose to look outside of the workplace for things that make bosses misbehave at the office.

“Work and family lives are more connected these days,” McCormick says . “It’s not like it was a few decades ago when there were very clear boundaries. Now work can always reach you, and so can family.”

The researchers looked for a correlation between supervisors who were expending a great deal of mental energy dealing with issues at home and whether they were perceived as abusive by their employees at work. The hypothesis was that supervisors distracted by issues at home would suffer from “ego depletion” and would be more likely to act abusively toward employees.

“When we say someone is ego-depleted, it means that their mental energy is running low,” McCormick says. “When we are ego-depleted, the self-regulatory mechanisms that keep us from lashing out drop away. The voice in our head that tells us that something is inappropriate disappears, and we say and do things we normally would not do.”

Among the findings of the research:

  • Managers who reported experiencing more family-to-work conflict (demands and strain in the family domain that interfere with work responsibilities) were considered by employees to exhibit more verbally abusive behavior.
  • When faced with family-to-work conflict, female bosses were more likely to report being mentally exhausted and more likely to be perceived as abusive by their employees.
  • On days in which managers reported experiencing more family-to-work conflict, they themselves reported being more verbally abusive toward employees.
  • Bosses were more likely to take out their home-based frustrations on employees if they felt their organization would let them get away with being verbally abusive toward employees.

That women bosses are more prone to verbally abusing employees when facing family interferences with work responsibilities says far more about the division of labor in American families than it does about the ability of women to manage, McCormick says .

“Many American households include a female and a male with full-time work responsibilities. While there are exceptions, on average women in America are expected to contribute more at home even though their outside-the-home work responsibilities are equal to or greater than those of their male counterparts. Whether it is taking care of problems that children are having at school or caring for aging parents, societal expectations in many families have led women to shoulder more of the load,” McCormick says.

Another factor that appears to influence whether bosses are abusive toward employees is whether they believe that they can get away with it. The researchers found a correlation between abusive behavior and whether a supervisor felt that there were consequences imposed by the organization for such behavior.

“We found that in situations where a manager felt there were no real repercussions for acting abusively toward subordinates, he or she was more likely to be abusive,” McCormick said. “In an environment that was more tightly regulated, even when they were ego-depleted, they were less likely to lash out. It appears to have a lot to do with corporate culture.”

The research has several implications, McCormick says.

  • Societally, it suggests that if males and females are expected to contribute equally in the work place, we need to adjust the nature of expectations for the division of responsibilities at home.
  • Individually, the research suggests that supervisors need to be more aware of how out-of-the-office stressors are influencing the way that they manage.
  • For business, it suggests that companies should implement policies and foster a culture that guards against abusive supervision from occurring.

Joining McCormick as authors on the study were Stephen H. Courtright of Texas A&M, the study’s lead author; Richard G. Gardner of University of Nevada Las Vegas; Troy A. Smith of Texas A&M; and Amy E. Colbert from the University of Iowa.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.