Note: For a related story, see Bullying Causes Coworker Stress. Pat
Bosses who bully their subordinates also damage co-workers who see or hear about the abuse, much like second-hand smoke affects those in the vicinity of a smoker.
That is the conclusion of a study published recently in The Journal of Social Psychology, “An Investigation of Abusive Supervision, Vicarious Abuse Supervision, and Their Joint Impacts.” The study was conducted by Paul Harvey from the University of New Hampshire, Kenneth Harris and Raina Harris from Indiana University Southeast and Melissa Cast from New Mexico State University.”
The study defines abusive supervision as a dysfunctional type of leadership that includes a sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward subordinates. The authors say abusive supervision generally is positively related to job frustration and co-worker abuse and negatively related to perceived organizational support.
“Although the effects of abusive supervision may not be physically harmful as other types of dysfunctional behavior (workplace violence or aggression), the actions are likely to leave longer lasting wounds. One reason for these long-lasting “scars” is that workplace violence and aggression are often stopped quickly, whereas abusive supervisory behaviors (such as being rude or giving the silent treatment) can continue for considerable times,” the researchers state.
Vicarious supervisory abuse occurs when an employee hears rumors of abusive behavior from coworkers, reads about such behaviors in an email, or actually witnesses the abuse of a coworker.
The report posits that workers who do not experience the abuse first hand may experience similar negative effects as the worker who is being abused. They may realize they could become targets for abuse by the same supervisor or they could be transferred to work under an abusive supervisor.
According to the study, employees expect to be treated with respect and consideration by their supervisors. In exchange, they work hard, have positive attitudes about their work and the workplace, and treat others with consideration. When abusive supervision occurs, employees are likely to feel less positively about their work (higher frustration and lower perceived organizational support) and react negatively toward coworkers who are a “safe target” upon which to vent aggression.
The researchers found similar negative impacts of first-hand supervisory abuse and second-hand vicarious supervisory abuse: greater job frustration, tendency to abuse other coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support.
The researchers queried a sample of 233 people who work in a wide range of occupations in the Southeast United States. Demographically, the sample was 46 percent men, 86 percent white, had an average age of 42.6 years, had worked in their job for seven years, had worked at their company for 10 years, and worked an average of 46 hours a week. Survey respondents were asked about supervisory abuse, vicarious supervisory abuse, job frustration, perceived organizational support, and coworker abuse.
“Our research suggests that vicarious abusive supervision is as likely as abusive supervision to negatively affect desired outcomes, with the worst outcomes resulting when both vicarious abusive supervision and abusive supervision are present,” the researchers said. “Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse.”