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Abusive Bosses Suffer From Their Own Terribleness

‘Over the long haul it will come back to haunt them.’

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

It’s obvious that a boss’ bad behavior negatively affects their team’s well-being, but the effect on the individual boss has been less clear. Now a team of international researchers reports that “bullying and belittling employees starts to take its toll on a supervisor’s mental state after about a week,” according to their new research published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Of course, this research isn’t meant to minimize the effect that abusive behavior (think needlessly harsh comments, rude language and criticism that’s far from constructive) has on the people it’s actually directed at. But looking at why abusive bosses do what they do and the impact it has on them could help us understand how this type of behavior hurts everyone and lead to more effective workplace interventions.

In the study, researchers from Michigan State University and Chinese institutions Sun Yat-sen University, the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, Peking University and Communication University of China conducted three experiments to analyze the impact that abusive supervisor behavior has on the supervisors themselves.

To start, the researchers wanted to see what potential personal benefits bad bosses might get from their behavior to understand why they would continue to bully others. They looked specifically at something called resource recovery, which refers to how we return to baseline after something stressful saps our mental or physical energy (or resources). According to the study, people with high levels of resources are “more willing to invest effort, more resilient when confronted with stress and more likely to concentrate fully on the task at hand.” The study also cites previous research showing a potential link between resource recovery and work engagement, which suggests that people who have the resources to bounce back better after stressful situations might also be more engaged in their work.

To test whether treating others poorly affected people’s resource recovery, the researchers designed two experiments: one included 64 students from a university in northern China and the other included 100 supervisors working in various industries including service, marketing and manufacturing at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in the U.S. The experiments were slightly different but the gist was the same: the participants were split into groups and one group was instructed to act as “abusive supervisors” by sending subordinates harsh messages through a chat system such as “I really doubt your ability and value to the team!” or “the tasks are very easy, are you stupid?” (In the U.S. study, there were no actual people on the receiving end of the messages.)

In both studies, the abusive supervisor group “experienced significantly higher levels or recovery compared to those in the control condition.” The researchers also found that people in the abusive supervisor group scored better on a test measuring their resource recovery levels, suggesting they may have conserved more resources like mental energy and been more engaged in their work as result.

To measure how long these seemingly positive effects lasted, the researchers designed a third experiment where 72 supervisors in China took surveys twice a day (at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.) about abusive supervisory behavior, recovery level and work engagement for 10 consecutive work days. They found that after about a week, “abusive superiors started to experience decreased trust, support and productivity from employees,” according to the press release, which happen to be “critical resources for the bosses’ recovery and engagement.” This is a slow burn: workers might not immediately confront their abusive bosses following an incident, but over time they might engage in “counterproductive and aggressive behaviors,” not to mention quitting altogether.

So while supervisors may get a short-term “resource” boost by saying abusive things to their subordinates—namely conservation of resources that can make them more engaged at work—this engagement boost doesn’t last long.

Russell Johnson, PhD, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University and one of the study’s co-authors, suspects that bad bosses act out because it takes mental effort to keep a lid on their abusive instincts, which could “lead to mental fatigue,” according to the press release.

“The moral of the story is that although abuse may be helpful and even mentally restorative for supervisors, over the long haul it will come back to haunt them,” Johnson said in the press release.

To prevent abusive behavior altogether, the researchers suggest that supervisors reduce their workloads, have more open communication with employees and take more deliberate breaks during the day. They also emphasize that communication is key: “Communicating with workers may help supervisors by releasing negative emotions through sharing, receiving social support and gaining relational energy from their coworkers.”

Focusing on ways to minimize abuse in the first place and provide support for those who are the target of such behavior should always be the first priority in these situations, but this research helps provide some insight on why people do what they do. Hopefully it can be used to help design interventions and programs that make workplace well-being achievable for everyone.

Read the study here.

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