LEADERSHIP / AUG. 30, 2014
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Study Finds that Abusive Leaders Can 'infect' Others

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If you want to have a productive team of workers, you’d better watch how you treat them.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and conducted by scholars at Michigan State University

The study found that bosses who are abusive to their employees can change the culture of the entire team, and not in a good way. When bosses are hostile to individual employees face-to-face or even in emails, that behavior can rub off on subordinates. In turn, employees may also engage in verbal abuse or may be more combative with fellow employees. 

What’s worse, the study also found that workers tend to contribute less in that type of environment, meaning fewer contributions to the overall good of the company, and less of an effort toward co-worker support. 

Another study conducted in 2000 found similar results from so-called "abusive supervision," finding that abused employees tended to be less satisfied in life and work; less committed to the job, were more emotionally exhausted and tended to have more family-work conflicts. In the case of emotional exhaustion, that can lead to burnout, which can lead to far less productivity on the job. 

Whether you’re more concerned about the productivity element or interpersonal harmony on the job, it’s clear that it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. So how to change?

The U.S. Army, for example, is taking "toxic leadership" as a serious problem. In one study, the U.S. Army found that 80 percent of officers and troops reported observing a toxic leader -- and 20 percent had worked under one. The Army’s first step to combat the problem: to have subordinates rate leaders, in a way similar to the way subordinates currently rate their superiors. So far, they’ve let a few officers go because of toxic leadership, and they plan to open up the rating system to a much wider group of personnel in the coming months and years.

Because leadership is ultimately an exercise in the human experience, other experts have recommended more emotional intelligence training for officers and those who are in charge of others. That includes focusing on leadership qualities such as empathy, respect and creating a positive environment.

In the realm of human interaction and human experience, other business experts have recommended creating a representative in the company to whom employees can turn when they’re dealing with a rude, insensitive, shallow or psychologically abusive boss, with the idea that having a sounding board can help employees feel supported and understood. 

Whatever way you decide to deal with it, experts tend to agree that the problem needs to be dealt with from the top levels of the organization -- much the way the U.S. Army is doing it. 

If you have a toxic boss, or you suspect you’re being one yourself, the first step is to recognize the problem, and then to seek help to fix it.

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