Bossing Bad

Abusive management behaviors can dampen initiative-taking in some employees more than others.

While having a horrible boss is undoubtedly the pits, not all employees are psychologically impacted in the same way by verbally abusive leaders, according to a new study co-authored by Haoying “Howie” Xu, an assistant professor of management in the Stevens School of Business.  

Xu and colleagues found that bad bosses more strongly affect the go-getters who prioritize career advancement than those employees for whom job security is a top priority.  

After negative encounters with their supervisors, such as being shouted at or reprimanded in front of coworkers, employees who normally strive ended up taking charge less often. Yet employees primarily focused on maintaining their jobs reported no change in initiative-taking behavior. “We found that ambitious employees suffer more from abusive supervision than employees who just want to keep their job safe,” Xu notes.  

The themes explored in the study, published in Group & Organization Management, reflect a confluence of Xu’s research interests, which consider the cognitive factors involved in leadership, relationships and emotions in the workplace. “In organizations, there’s no leadership style that is perfect,” says Xu. “Through management research, however, we can diagnose and address problems in the workplace and offer practically relevant takeaways.” 

Divergent Impacts 

For the research, Xu and colleagues surveyed about 200 pairs of employees and bosses from more than 40 companies based in South Korea, and further conducted an experiment with more than 200 English-speaking participants from the U.S. who served as comparisons to the set of real workers.  

The researchers ranked study participants based on their reported pursuit of career advancement opportunities versus avoiding risk and novelty and simply staying put. The results revealed that only those employees who cared about career advancement were sensitive to supervisory mistreatment.  

Xu believes that ambitious employees, when hounded by scornful supervisors, lose motivation to contribute, and instead feel that genuine career advancement opportunities only exist externally — that is, at other workplaces.  

The study suggests approaches for limiting abusive leadership’s effects. Though step one is to avoid hiring managers who display negative personality traits, Xu says, instances of abusive leadership can nevertheless occur for common reasons, such as a manager “not getting a good night’s sleep or having an argument with a family member before work.”  

Employees and managers alike would benefit from readily acknowledging this ever-present possibility of workplace-impacting external factors. “Managers can say to their employees, ‘I had a bad day, it’s not related to your performance,’” Xu says.  

Moreover, managers can foster psychological empowerment by addressing the employee’s particular concerns. “For ambitious employees, you can assure them of their value to the organization and their future there,” Xu says. “And for those with employment security concerns, you can assure them of their job safety.” 

Adam Hadhazy

Research Briefs 

Semcer CHI Relaunches, Refocuses 

Stevens’ Semcer Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI) unveiled its updated mission to the public in a campus event in November.  

“The idea is to work across departments and take advantage of collaborations to maximize our impact,” explained center director Hongjun Wang. “Our researchers will make more of a ‘team effort,’ both across disciplines and schools here at Stevens and also by building new and existing collaborations with industry and medical and clinical partners.”   Toward that end, the center has reorganized research into five focused research clusters: 

  • Multifunctional Multiscale Biomaterials and Biofabrication 

  • Molecular, Cellular, Tissue Technologies 

  • Biomechanics and Rehabilitation Engineering 

  • Biomedical Sensing and Imaging 

  • Drug Discovery, Development and Delivery. 

 The event included remarks by the sons of benefactor Frank Semcer ’65, Frank, Jr. and Brian Semcer M.TM. ’00, faculty presentations and a conversation with Tanya Alcorn M.Eng. ’15 of Pfizer on topics such as academic-industry collaboration and COVID-19 vaccines.

An AI for Epilepsy?

More than 50 million people worldwide are diagnosed with epilepsy, a dangerous and incurable brain disorder. Stevens researcher Md Abu Sayeed is collaborating with Yale University and other partners on AI-powered systems to spot seizures quickly, accurately and efficiently.   Sayeed and his collaborators use algorithmic processes to massively shrink the amount of brain-wave EEG data needed for a quick, accurate analysis.   After running their system on data collected by MIT from 22 patients with epilepsy, Sayeed found his system’s detection of a new epileptic episode was as accurate as the best existing AI systems — but much quicker, within an average of just one second. (The most popular current algorithm takes about 6 seconds.)  

Discover more research happening at Stevens