How Abusive Supervisors Impact Employee Relations
The past decade has seen an explosion of interest and research on the topic of abusive supervision. Such behaviors typically include ridiculing and humiliating subordinates in public, refusing to speak with subordinates, or otherwise debasing subordinates. Research suggests that abusive supervision has a detrimental effect on a number of organizational outcomes, including an increase in anti-social behavior among subordinates, job performance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Abusive supervision is estimated to affect approximately 10 to 16 percent of American workers at a cost of $23.8 billion dollars annually.
As the world economy becomes increasingly globalized and company workforces become more culturally diverse, there is an increasing need to understand the implications of these trends for organizational leadership theories. In the study of abusive supervisory behavior, research from a faculty member at the Penn State Smeal College of Business emphasizes the relevance of the concept of power distance, or the degree to which individuals accept and believe that organizational, institutional, or societal power should be distributed unequally.
Lance Ferris, assistant professor of management and organization at Smeal, along with co-authors Huiwen Lian of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Douglas Brown of the University of Waterloo examined the effects of abusive supervision and how supervisory mistreatment impacts the way in which subordinates interact with others, depending on the power distance orientation of the subordinate. Based on a social learning theory model, which implies people learn what actions are appropriate from models in their surrounding environment, the researchers suggest that this learning pattern is exacerbated for those with high power distance orientations because they are more likely to view their superiors as role models and therefore as people to pattern their own interpersonal behavior after. Thus, they argued that for high power distance orientation subordinates, abusive superiors should be respected and learned from; as a result, high power distance subordinates are likely to mimic the abusive behaviors their supervisors display.
The researchers conducted several studies using a series of surveys that invited employed individuals to participate in research on workplace attitudes and behaviors. They measured employee perceptions of how abusive their supervisor is, to what extent they believed they would be rewarded for abusive behavior, and their own abusive behavior, among others. These were considered in relation to the employee's power distance orientation.
The findings show that subordinates with higher power distance orientations modeled the actions of their superiors, engaging in more abusive interpersonal behavior themselves. Furthermore, results show that deviant behavior between subordinates and their co-workers is facilitated when the behavior goes unpunished, otherwise implying that such behavior is encouraged, even rewarded.
Noting that previous studies have primarily suggested and found high power distance orientation is a “good thing” in that it buffers subordinates from negative effects associated with abusive supervision (e.g., perceiving such treatment as fair), the researchers explain that high power distance orientation is a double-edged sword for abusive supervisors.
“Although they may perceive such abusive behavior as fair, the fact that the subordinates turn around and treat their co-workers in an abusive manner is problematic,” write the researchers. “It will also have negative consequences in their relationships to fellow co-workers. Furthermore, given that interpersonal deviance is typically thought to negatively impact performance and morale, it’s questionable whether or not having subordinates with high power distance orientations is a boon or a bane to abusive leaders.”
Their study ultimately shows that an important caveat in the research of abusive supervision exists in the power distance orientation of subordinates.
“This conclusion is equally notable given that high power distance has typically been conceived of as purely justifying the effects of abusive supervision,” write the researchers.
Given that the process by which subordinates imitate superiors is largely based in social learning theory, the research findings can be used to suggest ways in which organizations can halt this modeling process. The most obvious way to do so is to remove the model. That is, by implementing a zero-tolerance policy for abusive supervision and firing those who violate the policy. Of course, zero-tolerance policies are harsh and not always applicable in every situation. In such cases, other forms of punishment (i.e. unpaid leave, formal reprimands, etc.) may be used. The researchers suggest that public reprimands reduce the likelihood that subordinates will model their own behaviors after those who are punished. Finally, raising the awareness among supervisors of the potential impact their behavior may have on subordinates and the organization as a whole may help to motivate change, especially when paired with training to provide supervisors with new manners in which to interact with others.
In terms of future research, their findings suggest that social learning theory tenets may be particularly useful in understanding workplace interactions in high power distance countries. The researchers plan to develop studies to examine cross-cultural organizational behavior.
Their study, “Does Power Distance Exacerbate or Mitigate the Effects of Abusive Supervision? It Depends on the Outcome,” recently appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology.