WORKPLACE / NOV. 19, 2014
version 2, draft 2

The Viral Nature of an Abusive Boss

It’s often said that we tend to leave a job due to our boss rather than the job itself.  Having an abusive boss therefore can be a recipe for disaster, both for you individually, but also for the organisation who lose so much talent as a result of the bosshole.

The truly scary thing about such a person is that they don’t just impact upon their immediate team.  A study from researchers at Drexel University found that the abusive boss has a negative impact upon the entire office.

Monkey see, monkey do

The researchers believed that our bosses usually act as a pretty strong role model for everyone else in the team, so they reasoned that if employees see the bosses acting like idiots, then it gives them freedom to act the same way too, in a virulent trickle down of bad behaviour.

“If supervisors see their higher level managers engaging in abusive supervision, they may employ similar behavior but directed toward their own employees,” the researchers declare. “Therefore, we first propose abused supervisors may become abusers themselves—but of those they supervise, that is, their own employees.”

The researchers surveyed a group of employees and managers from organisations in a wide range of industries, including insurance, finance, retail, government and technology.

The research team collected data from nearly 300 work groups, all of which contained at least three employees, with a combined sample of nearly 1,500 employees. In addition, the 295 supervisors for each group were also surveyed.

The supervisors in question were asked about how often their teams would engage in abusive behaviour towards one another whilst at work.  They were also asked how often they had seen or heard of abusive behaviours from the bosses one level up the hierarchy to them.

The rank and file employees by contrast, were asked about the abusiveness (or not) of their direct boss, but also whether their team work environment was a hostile one or not.

The viral nature of abusive leadership

As the researchers expected, it transpired that abusive behaviour from the boss at the top of the organisation quickly trickled down, with managers at each level reporting a rise in abusiveness.  This environment also prompted abusive behaviour amongst the rank and file employees too.

Employees in this kind of environment reported feeling antagonistic and suspicious towards their colleagues, with the abusive culture tending to feed itself and become worse and worse.

This kind of culture could be stopped by an environment and culture of low hostility. The researchers believe that when abuse occurs in a more friendly environment, rather than going all Lord of the Flies, the employees are more likely to rally around their abused colleague.

“Given the powerful effect of abusive supervisor behavior, it is intriguing that we can still find an aspect of the workgroup climate that can strengthen (or even reverse) the influence of abusive supervision,” the researchers conclude.

It all goes to show that abusive work cultures aren’t just down to one or two bad apples.  They tend to extend much further than that, so need to be tackled holistically rather than removing the bad apples and hoping it will go away.

Have any of you had to suffer with an abusive boss? How did your employer respond to this situation? Your thoughts and comments below please…


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