LEADERSHIP / FEB. 12, 2015
version 3, draft 3

How Abusive Leadership Trickles Down The Organisation

It’s fairly well established that the number one reason for leaving a job is a bad relationship with our boss. What causes a boss to be poor, however, is slightly less well understood. A recent study by researchers at Vanderbilt University suggests that bad bosses might emerge as a consequence of poor management from their own bosses.

In other words, if senior managers treat middle managers badly, they then appear to take this out on their own teams, which tends to result in high labour turnover, costing their organisations considerably.

"Middle managers’ treatment of employees reflects how bosses treat them," the authors say.

The study builds on previous works that have linked a high turnover of employees with significantly lower customer satisfaction.  There is a strong link between our happiness with our boss and the overall employee turnover levels in an organisation.

The importance of role models

The paper suggests that a big cause of this failure in management is a distinct lack of role models from senior managers.

"If an organization wishes to address issues related to line employees’ work attitudes, it should address behavior and work attitudes from the top down." the authors reveal. "The focus should not just be on employees and their managers, but also on the signals being sent by senior managers every day as they interact with their middle-level manager subordinates."

Over 1,500 employees were surveyed from nearly 100 hotels across North America. The researchers found a strong relationship between the satisfaction levels between a middle manager and their own bosses, and the general satisfaction levels of employees with those same middle managers.

So a terrible relationship between a middle manager and his own boss has a big impact on the entire organisation. The effect of this poor relationship is felt all the way down the line to the employees overseen by the middle managers, which can often manifest itself in high employee turnover levels throughout the workforce.

"Despite the lack of direct contact between senior managers and line employees, senior managers can have a significant influence on those line employees," the authors declare.

The Significant Impact on Female Managers

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the study also revealed that the effect felt by female managers was especially high.

"While the trickle-down effect is general, there may be subgroups especially influenced by the trickle-down dynamic and we have identified women middle managers as a group that is especially affected by the trickle-down effect," the paper reveals.

The authors accept that their study was limited to the hospitality industry, but they believe that their findings are replicable across other industry sectors.  Nevertheless, this is a hypothesis they intend to test with further studies at a later date.

It reinforces the important role senior managers have in the wellbeing and satisfaction levels within their organisations, however.  If you’ve been suffering at the hands of your own boss, it may well be the case that they are simply passing on the angst they’ve received from their own managers, in a poisonous trickle down of abuse.


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