Acts of Hostility
Why Are Abusive Supervisors Abusive? A Dual-system Self-control Model
LIANG, Lindie H | LIAN, Huiwen | BROWN, Douglas J | FERRIS, D. Lance | HANIG, Samuel | KEEPING, Lisa M.
Academy of Management Journal, 59: 1385-1406
Why are abusive supervisors abusive? Why do they yell, insult or demean their subordinates? This is an issue that all organisations should be considering because supervisory abuse can result in decreased productivity and employee well-being, and increased legal costs.
Much research has framed the problem as either the result of a trickle-down effect – abusive bosses are abused themselves – or victimisation in which actions by subordinates provoke mistreatment by their superiors. Yet not all such situations result in abusive behaviour. Something is missing.
Huiwen Lian and a team of co-authors address the gap by arguing for the need to address the state of the perpetrators themselves and how this influences their response to perceived provocations by subordinates.
“An employee who does not meet the required performance standards, such as not doing their assigned work properly or failing to complete essential duties, can be frustrating to work with. A supervisor may interpret such poor performance as a challenge to their authority. The supervisor may also feel that it compromises their own performance or impedes their own goal achievement because they may need to spend time and effort to fix the work that the subordinate failed to perform adequately,” they said.
The key factor that turns those feelings into abusive behaviour is the supervisor’s self-control, which the authors present as anchored in two systems: one that relates to the extent to which supervisors feel hostility towards poor-performing subordinates (what the authors call hostile attribution bias), and the other the extent to which they can reflect on and control their hostile behaviours (or mindfulness).
They show in two experiments and a multi-wave, multi-source field study of 50 supervisors and 206 subordinates, that supervisors who interpret the subordinate’s behaviour as intentional – indicating a high level of hostile attribution bias – and who have a low level of mindfulness, are more likely to want to act on their feelings and engage in abusive behaviour.
“This suggests that abuse is a function of both subordinate behaviour in the form of poor performance, and supervisor characteristics in relation to hostile attribution bias and mindfulness. The finding contributes to our understanding of workplace victimisation as a whole because it offers insights into why supervisors lash out at poor performing subordinates, and also how followers can influence leader behaviours,” they said.
The implications for organisations are that more care should be taken in training and selecting employees and supervisors based on the issues flagged in the study.
“Organisations may reduce abusive supervision by providing training in cognitive reappraisal tactics to reduce hostile interpretations, and in mindfulness to raise awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences.
“They may also consider selecting both supervisors and subordinates who are better able to regulate their behaviours – such subordinates may be less likely to exhibit the poor work performance that provokes supervisor hostility, while such supervisors may be less likely to act on their hostility when faced with any provocation from their subordinates,” they said.