How Dysfunctional Bosses Who Bully Employees Poison the Workplace

Don Tennant

If there’s anything worse than a bully, it’s a bully who has supervisory power over you and your IT career progression. And new research shows that that dysfunctional behavior isn’t just harmful to the victims of the abuse, but also to the victims’ coworkers who witness it.

Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire associate professor of organizational behavior, conducted the study with co-researchers from Indiana University Southeast and New Mexico State University. The researchers found that employees who experience this bullying supervisory behavior second-hand through observation or awareness — “vicarious” victims of supervisory abuse — suffer the same negative effects as the employees at whom the abuse is directed. The abuse typically involves a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, which often take the form of ridicule, public criticism and the silent treatment. The negative effects can include job frustration, a tendency to abuse other coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support.

I spoke with Harvey about the research last week, and I asked him whether victims of vicarious supervisory abuse are any more or less likely to put up with the abuse or push back than the victims of direct supervisory abuse. He said the question could be argued both ways:

This is just speculation on my part, but given the outcomes that we measured in the study—job frustration and things like that—there are unpleasant outcomes [for victims of vicarious supervisory abuse], but not as directly unpleasant as for the person who’s on the receiving end of the behavior. You could argue it both ways. You could say that because they’re not being as directly beaten down as much as the intended target, maybe they’re less afraid of the supervisor and more apt to try to speak up and do something about it. You could also argue the other side, that because the impact is more indirect—they’re just hearing about what’s happening—they might feel, “Well, it’s not really my business, I don’t want to get into it.” Or he might feel that since it’s not happening to him directly, he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. My guess is the second argument would be the more accurate one—that they’re probably less apt to do anything about it than the actual target. But there are probably exceptions to that.

I asked Harvey how gender plays into supervisory abuse — that is, whether it’s more prevalent or more harmful depending on the genders of the abuser and the victim. Not surprisingly, he said males tend to be the perpetrators, and females tend to be the victims:

I am aware of some research that has shown that male supervisors are more likely to be viewed as abusive compared to female supervisors, and victims of abuse are more likely to be female, as opposed to male. There are probably multiple issues at play there. It stands to reason that that’s probably a fairly accurate assessment, but there are also perceptual aspects at play. Given the stereotypically masculine behaviors, a lot of male managers feel they have more leeway in being aggressive. Even if they don’t intend to be abusive, they can obviously be seen that way. A lot of female managers feel there are social norms that restrict those aggressive behaviors, so they’re likely to fill the stereotypical gender roles that they feel are expected of them. Not that they’re pushovers, but they’re generally less likely to engage in these hostile, typically masculine managerial behaviors. So that may have something to do with why we see that pattern—male supervisors tend to be seen as more abusive, and female employees tend to report higher levels of abuse than male employees.

I wondered whether the frequency and impact of supervisory abuse differ between the different generations. Harvey said he had conducted another study that hasn’t been fully vetted through the review process, so it should be considered opinion at this point. But he said the younger generation just joining the work force is likely more prone to feeling victimized by behavior that isn’t necessarily all that abusive:

We did find that people with what we call a “sense of entitlement” tended to view the same supervisory behaviors as more abusive compared to other employers who didn’t have that higher sense of entitlement. It’s generally kind of an accepted thing that the younger generation that’s just been joining the work force in the last 10 years or so, by virtue of growing up in strong economic times for a good chunk of their lives, and other factors, there is a slightly higher entitlement level among that generation. So when we put those two things together, it may be that younger employees are more apt to view aggressive behavior that’s not necessarily abusive as more abusive than it’s intended to be. That’s a little bit of a leap over what we actually found, but it’s a logical deduction.

On the question of whether supervisory abuse is more prevalent in certain industries than in others, Harvey said that anecdotally, it appears it’s more common in jobs that are high-stress:


I don’t know if there’s been research conducted to measure the differences. Health care—and nurses in particular—is notorious for experiencing higher levels of abuse than other industries. That’s probably due in large part to the inherent stressfulness of the job. I think that’s what you would see pretty consistently. A lot of what drives people towards abusive behavior is stress unrelated to the employees that they’re abusing. Employees are seen as providing kind of a safe outlet, either intentionally or unintentionally, for venting frustration. So any job that’s more stressful, that’s more taxing on people, that’s going to cause more frustration. Those are the jobs where you’re going to see more abusive behaviors, just because you’ve got more people trying to vent that frustration.

Another issue that’s kind of tricky to get into is there are some industries where what might be considered abusive in one setting may not be in another setting. Construction, for example, or anything where you’re working with heavy or dangerous machinery, if somebody is doing something wrong, it’s probably more acceptable to scream and yell and drop a few F-bombs, because you want to capture the person’s attention immediately so he stops doing what he’s doing. Whereas in a less demanding, less dangerous work environment, that same behavior would almost certainly be considered abusive. So there are some industries where behaviors that qualify as abusive are more common, but also deemed more acceptable by the people who work there.

I asked Harvey what factors other than stress tend to drive a boss to bully his or her employees. He said an especially strong predictor that a supervisor will bully his employees is having been bullied himself:

A couple of years ago we did a study where we found that supervisors who were themselves abused by their supervisors were more abusive towards their own employees—possibly because of a venting thing; possibly because they’re emulating their own boss and they think that behavior is acceptable, or maybe even expected. It’s part of what we found in this more recent study, as well, that part of the vicarious abuse probably stems from the fact that some people do turn around and abuse other people as they’ve been abused. There’s also a fair amount of research by some other folks, looking at justice perceptions, where they find that supervisors who feel they’re being unfairly treated either by their own supervisors or by the organization in general—they feel their performance is being overlooked, or they’re underpaid, anything where they feel they’re not being treated fairly—those things seem to drive the abusive behaviors towards employees, as well. It’s probably mostly a venting mechanism.

Finally, Harvey noted it needs to be understood that just because an employee claims to have been bullied by a supervisor doesn’t necessarily mean that any abusive behavior actually took place:

There’s a tendency with this abusive supervision research, both by the researchers and by laypeople as well, to assume that reports about abusive supervision translate into actual supervisory abusive behavior. There’s been a tendency to assume that these ratings of abusive supervisory behavior are necessarily accurate. What we’ve been finding is that at least some of this appears to be a perception thing, too—what one person sees as abusive, another person might not see as abusive, based on past experience. So it’s important to get the point across that there is a perceptual element to this, and that just because someone says his boss is abusive doesn’t necessarily mean his coworkers are going to agree. Perceptions of abuse are important, because perception is reality—if people believe they were abused, they’re going to act like it. Sometimes there’s a tendency to sort of vilify the managers—to immediately assume that the employee is right and the manager is in the wrong. That might not always be the case. There are two sides to every story.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 11, 2013 2:56 PM Wakjob Wakjob  says:
More feminizing of the American male. Ask the N. Korean Army if they think not being a bully is a good idea. Steve Jobs was a huge bully. But he got things done and look at the result. Sometimes you have to bully people because they are lazy. If Silo-con Valley was not such a high-school popularity contest, maybe these kids today would have some work discipline and do their jobs properly. Reply
Mar 13, 2013 8:50 AM Dolores Dolores  says:
Speaking of pointy-haired bosses, http://www.endicottalliance.org/consideryourselfahardworker.htm Reply

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