Research & Innovation

Unraveling the Dynamics of Abusive Supervision

Managers play a crucial role in shaping their team’s career trajectory. A supportive, competent manager can help pave the way for their success, while an abusive manager can potentially hinder professional growth and shake their confidence.

New research conducted by School of Business assistant professor Howie (Haoying) Xu and a team of researchers from U.S. universities and one Korean university delved into the impact of abusive supervision on employees with differing career motivations.

The Inspiration

“Abusive supervision has gained interest over the last 20 years,” explained Xu.

The idea behind their work stemmed from a conversation between Xu, head researcher Ui Young Sun (Lecturer in Monash Business School), and the paper’s other authors. They shared either first-hand encounters or workplace observations throughout their careers.

The Key Players

Researchers focused on three types on individuals.

  • The abusive manager – this study reviewed any actions from a manager that were negative or unfriendly. Physical abuse or contact was held as an extreme action and not factored into this type of management style. These actions could include poor communication, private or public putdowns, ignoring employees and taking credit for the ideas produced by others.

  • Ambitious employees – individuals motivated by the prospect of being promoted and moving up in a company.

  • Security-focused employees – individuals motivated by job security.

The Study

The group initially hypothesized that both types of employees were equally sensitive to abusive management.

The research methodology involved studies done in two countries.

  • South Korea – field research was conducted among hundreds of employees in various South Korean companies.

  • United States – after their results from South Korea challenged the initial hypothesis, the researchers broadened their sample group by including students from diverse backgrounds across the United States. The new samples confirmed their earlier findings.

The Discovery

The team’s findings conflicted with the original hypothesis. While an abusive manager can impact every employee, both rounds of research found that ambitious employees were far more likely to be sensitive and impacted by this leadership style. These employees were less likely to step up and take charge or innovate under abusive supervision. Instead, it was the security-focused employees who were less likely to be severely impacted and could step up in bad situations.

The Implications

Based on the research findings, Xu outlined recommendations for organizations, especially those that are smaller or newer with fewer formal structures, that can be put into place to address abusive behavior and promote a stronger work culture.

During the managerial hiring process, perform a personality assessment and use the interview process to understand a candidate’s managerial style.

Build channels for employees to safely report abusive behavior without fear of retaliation.

Develop action plans to address and discipline abusive behavior.

The Next Steps

The toxic manager phenomenon is something Xu finds interesting and wants to continue exploring. He has identified two critical next steps in the body of research.

  • Prevention: While there are studies focused on predicting abusive behavior through a person’s personality, company culture and HR practices, Xu says there is a lack of research into interventions aimed at reducing abusive management, particularly those that are low-cost.

  • Recovery: The ramifications of working under abusive leadership for any amount of time can be severely traumatic for some employees, especially those from marginalized communities, and work needs to be done to identify what organizations can do to help employees recover.

Ultimately, no manager is perfect. Xu acknowledges that even the best managers have a bad day at work from time to time. “No matter how you behave, employee perception is what matters,” he shares.

Howie suggests managers apologize for their actions or comments. He recommends those apologies are coupled with affirmations about an employee’s value to the team or the organization at large.

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