How hostile managers damage output at work

By David Donaldson

Tuesday March 12, 2019

Bullying bosses can lead to staff reducing effort at work and even engaging in retaliatory behaviours.

This is because “abusive supervision” not only raises stress levels, but violates ideas about fairness, according to a recent study.

It’s been known for a while that managers displaying hostility towards staff could have negative impacts on workplace productivity, but researchers haven’t been sure why exactly this happens.

So a paper published in the Journal of Management earlier this year tried to find out.

The researchers found two processes at work.

The first explanation is that poor treatment results in feelings of unfairness—a sense the effort the employee puts in is not valued. Where staff felt unfairness, they were more likely to pull back from putting in voluntary extra effort, such as helping out colleagues.

The other response they found was stress, which can overwhelm the ability to self-control. Where stress levels were increased, employees were more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviour, such as taking long breaks or being irritable with colleagues.

Coaching and training

The researchers made some recommendations to help organisations reduce the likelihood of such problems affecting their workforce.

“Practitioners should be aware of the detrimental impacts of abusive supervision,” the paper argues.

Research suggests managers with high levels of self-control may be less likely to act abusively towards staff.

“In this vein, organizations may consider appointing individuals with high levels of self-control as supervisors.”

Sending supervisors on regular leadership training programs to learn and adopt more effective interpersonal strategies when interacting with employees can help too.

“For example, organizations can employ emotional intelligence training programs to coach abusive supervisors to listen to employees’ ideas, be empathetic to their concerns and emotions, and provide greater support,” they write.

Such interventions can improve relationships between leaders and staff, and improve staff commitment to the organisation.

Additionally, addressing the specific drivers of stress and injustice can be useful.

If the goal is to prevent sabotage and other counterproductive behaviours, ensuring staff have adequate resources to prevent or deal with stress is important.

“They may support employees’ coping with abusive supervision by providing stress management training (e.g., mindfulness strategies) or promoting employees with high self-control.”

To deal with perceptions of injustice, an organisation should ensure its processes are fair.

“For instance, organizations could implement fair disciplinary procedures to address systematic, ongoing forms of abusive supervision,” says the paper.

“If employees regard abusive supervision to be atypical or not due to cultural norms within the organization, they are less likely to hold injustice perceptions toward the organization.”

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