Abusive supervision

Monday, 6 May 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“People do not leave organisations, they leave their bosses.” I have heard this many times here and abroad. The harsh truth is that there is something not so right with regards to supervision. Let’s discuss this newly-popularised phenomenon called “abusive supervision”.


What is abusive supervision? As the name suggests, it does harm to the employees. Abusive supervision has been typically described as subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which their supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours,

excluding physical contact. In other words, what happens mentally rather than physically matters more here.

There is a fundamental issue here of the use of the term ‘subordinates’. For me, it looks like sub-human beings whereas the leader appears as the super human being. Instead, the focus on team leader-member relationship would be better to minimise the perceived power gap.

In an apparel factory, a supervisor shouting at a person loudly and angrily in front of other employees is such an example. This is a direct violation of the golden rule of “praise in public and blame in private”.

Abusive supervision is displayed when managers use authority or position for personal gain, administer organisational policies unfairly, discourage initiative, and behave in a manner that may reflect indifference. This can be such as speaking rudely to subordinates in order to elicit desired task performance, or, as in the example provided above, wilfully and publicly displaying hostility or belittling subordinates in order to hurt their feelings.

While abusive supervision has long been documented in the workplace, only recently have researchers begun to examine its consequences. They note that such supervisory behaviour is associated with lower job and life satisfaction, lower normative and affective commitment, greater conflict between work and family and psychological stress.

Conflict connection

People may provoke their bosses. This can happen especially when they are stressed. Recent research has focused on what causes friction in the relationship between a supervisor and their staff. It can be the organisational culture, the individuals’ personalities or an interaction between the two that sparks strife. When combined with some psychological factors, a trivial incident can quickly escalate to fracture a working relationship.

Typically, problems start when a supervisor thinks workers are letting the team down by not pulling their weight. Psychologists suggest some workers with low self-esteem even “ask for trouble”, as if to confirm their worst opinion of themselves. And much depends on supervisors’ ability to handle the negative behaviours to prevent them from devolving into all-round lose-lose situations.

Work presents not only a legal contract but a deeper “psychological contract”. Aggression emerges when the organisation is seen as breaking its side of the bargain. Staff may feel an organisation treats them unjustly, that they are overloaded with work, or suffer ambiguous roles and confusing responsibilities.

As researchers observe, abusive supervision is not typically viewed as a conflict between two parties. Rather, it is seen as a negative act perpetrated by supervisors towards subordinates, with little consideration of the nature of the ongoing perpetrator-target relationship.

One reason for not considering the target’s role in abusive supervision is fear of blaming the victim that such an investigation would implicitly suggest that targets are partially to blame for their own abuse – a message that both condones abusive behaviour and further victimises the target of mistreatment.


Aggression in the workplace has many forms. It ranges from incivility (rudeness and discourtesy), to bullying (persistently criticising employees’ work, yelling, spreading gossip or lies, ignoring or excluding workers, and insulting employees’ habits, attitudes or private lives). According to researchers, among different sources of workplace mistreatment, emanating from supervisors, co-workers and the public, abusive supervision has the strongest negative effects.

The responsibility for abusive supervision lies with both perpetrators and targets, according to new research by Rafferty and Sandy Hershcovis, an expert on workplace aggression from the University of Manitoba in Canada. Their research has shed much light into the hidden phenomenon.

Why do supervisors pick on specific staff members and treat them unjustly? Poor performance is an obvious cause, but bullying behaviour can also be a response to a target employee’s personality, attitudes, or other behaviour. “Certain targets – those who are anxious and tense – seem to be at higher risk of abusive supervision,” says Hershcovis. This happens particularly when there is deep-level dissimilarity between a leader and a team member, and conflict between them.

The authors say victims can precipitate their own mistreatment by behaving in a provocative manner that elicits a negative reaction from the boss. Abusive supervision lowers job satisfaction and organisational commitment, and can cause “resistance behaviour”, such as refusing to follow supervisor requests, problem drinking, deviant actions and a general failure to engage in positive workplace behaviours. In turn, supervisors may become frustrated with – and ultimately abusive towards – employees who hold negative work attitudes and are poor performers.

“Employees who are either too passive or overly conciliatory, or too dominating – forceful with their opinions or controlling – are more likely to be victimised at work. Targets who are disagreeable and neurotic are more likely to be treated with incivility,” says Rafferty. “Supervisors expect employees to exhibit traits that foster a positive and productive work environment.”

When leaders perceive their subordinates as disloyal, unlikeable, or incompetent, they may be more likely to engage in abusive supervision – such individuals have been dubbed “provocative victims” because they are difficult to work with and can bring out the worst in bosses.

Associated dynamics

The dynamics of abusive supervision, as with incivility at work, may involve a thoughtless act escalating into aggression. Simple acts such as walking by a colleague without saying hello, forgetting to say “please” or “thank you” can lead to a retaliatory response.

The target of the thoughtless act may respond by saying something bad about the instigator to a colleague. This might get back to the instigator, who, unaware of the original transgression, may escalate it by confronting the rumour-monger – thus the original “victim” is seen as an overt perpetrator. “This simple example of an incivility spiral demonstrates how easily a target can be the initial cause of his or her own mistreatment,” says Rafferty.

In moving further, psychology also throws light on the interactions between workers and bosses. Individuals aim to verify their self-views, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, and work to create environments that support that self-view. Employees with high self-esteem exhibit higher organisational commitment when treated fairly.

“Those with negative self-views, such as those with low self-esteem, may actively seek out abusive supervision,” notes Rafferty. “Further, low self-esteem employees are less likely to quit the organisation, and are more likely to antagonise an abusive supervisor by engaging in deviant behaviours towards them, thus perpetuating negative treatment.

These aggravating behaviours may lead supervisors to respond in an aggressive manner in an effort to correct the employee’s negative behaviour. However, the supervisor’s abusive actions actually serve to verify this behaviour, leading to a vicious cycle.” This may lead to a blame game.

It is not only individuals with low self-esteem, but also employees who may be unaware they possess characteristics that aggravate or irritate a supervisor, Rafferty reports. “People who are characteristically anxious and worried can contribute to a more negative work environment because these personality traits are all related to a tendency to react negatively to a variety of situations.”

Targets of abusive supervision may engage in various active or passive but provocative behaviours that draw negative attention. For example, supervisors may perceive employees who do not put forward their best work effort, or who complain frequently about work tasks, to be lazy.

These negative behaviours can harm organisational performance, and in turn the reputation of the supervisor. Therefore, employees who deviate from the typical behaviours such as “saying yes” to the boss all the time, are likely to meet with supervisor disapproval creating an ongoing spiral of aggression, insist the authors.

Better understanding

Understanding the mechanisms behind abuse can help design measures to prevent bullying at work. This may involve training and counselling. Topics as interpersonal skills and communicating effectively with team members appear handy in this context. The authors suggest organisations could also educate new supervisors about the key factors that may cause them to become frustrated and potentially abusive at work. With this knowledge, a greater emphasis can be placed on developing supervisors to deal effectively with poor performing subordinates.

There is limited research about how to deal with abusive supervision once it occurs. One finding is that organisational investigations into abusive supervision and other forms of aggression tend to focus on getting to the bottom of the matter and rectifying the supervisor’s behaviour. The research suggests the need for a broader look at both sides of the relationship to identify contributing factors.  “We recognise this seems dangerously close to a ‘blame the victim’ argument,” say the authors. “However, if we accept that abusive supervision is part of an ongoing exchange, then as with any other type of conflict resolution, both parties need to consider their role and work to repair the relationship.”

Way forward

In Sri Lankan organisations, told and untold stories are there about aggressive supervision. It should be tackled tactfully in order to retain talent. Also, aggressive supervision should not be a spoiler for employee satisfaction. With proper awareness of its ill-effects, leaders should pave the way by walking the talk. We can do much better on this front.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on [email protected] or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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