It is not uncommon for supervisors to lose their cool with employees at times. Sometimes it can escalate to become abusive. Troy Smith, assistant professor of management in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Business, has studied how abusive bosses perceive and respond to their own abusive behaviors.
“We explored how leaders view their own abusive behaviors and how those views subsequently influence their future behaviors toward employees,” said Smith, who published “Making Nice or Faking Nice? Exploring Supervisors’ Two-faced Response to Their Past Abusive Behavior” in Personnel Psychology. “We found that some supervisors do not feel bad about their abusive actions. Rather, they see their toxic actions as damaging to their social image or how others view them. Subsequently, rather than engage in genuine amends or changing their behaviors to resolve their social image concerns, they engage in impression management behaviors. In other words, they instrumentally fake nice rather than genuinely make nice as a means of repairing their social image.”
The study entailed 79 supervisors who had complete anonymity so they didn’t have to worry about backlash from reporting their abusive actions at work, which permitted them to be honest in their responses. Examples of abusive behavior ranged from emotionally manipulating, gossiping about or publicly demeaning and humiliating employees.
“It was interesting to have supervisors admit to abusing their employees and then report a greater concern about how others socially view them than any true remorse for their prior toxic behaviors,” Smith said. “In turn, they engaged in multiple impression management behaviors, such as self-promotion, ingratiation and exemplification. For example, so others would view them more favorably, they would make people aware of their own accomplishments, do favors for or give compliments to others, and try to appear as though they are busy or doing extra work. Sadly, they would do those behaviors rather than changing anything substantively about their abusive actions.”
The article, which was also featured in the Harvard Business Review, follows previous research exploring how employees are impacted by their supervisor’s abusive behaviors. However, Smith and his colleagues shift the conversation to understanding how abusive supervision impacts the leaders themselves, which is impactful in learning how to prevent leaders from abusing their employees.
“Abusive supervision is very costly to organizational outcomes. It hurts individuals’ well-being and has an impactful effect on the bottom line,” Smith said. “However, after engaging in abusive actions, some leaders are highly talented at giving compliments and highlighting their past performance as a means of looking good. In turn, organizational leaders or the abused employees themselves may overlook or even forgive the leaders’ abusive behaviors, allowing them to get away with them and promoting a cycle of abusive leadership.”
Smith and his co-authors — Shawn McClean, assistant professor of management at the University of Wyoming; Stephen Courtright, Henry B. Tippie Research Professor at the University of Iowa; and Junhyok Yim, doctoral student at Texas A&M University — point to implementation of zero-tolerance policies to prevent abusive behavior. Nevertheless, the person committing the abusive behavior must make a change within themselves if the workplace environment is to improve.
“A boss’s behavior can never be fully regulated by organizational policy; in the end, whether a boss fails to exhibit common decency and civil behavior to his employees is ultimately up to them,” the co-authors wrote. “Sincere apologies and reconciliations on the part of the offending boss are the only sustainable way of regaining credibility and moving forward from a lapse in civil behavior.”
To that end, Smith’s research team encourages leaders to employ reflection exercises about who they desire to be as an ideal supervisor as a means of lessening the cycle of abusive supervision. By reflecting upon their ideal self as a manager, they are less likely to be driven by a desire to look good socially.
“I research leadership because it is highly impactful in organizational settings,” he said. “I’m especially interested in abusive supervision as I’ve experienced its traumatizing effects in the past. To that end, I want to understand the antecedents and effects of abusive supervision to help employees and leaders themselves be more productive and experience greater well-being in the workplace.”