Abusive Leaders Undermine The Whole Team

Rude and abusive behavior by a supervisor toward individual employees harms more than just the targeted person — it can trigger conflict among the entire work team.

Michigan State University (MSU) researchers conducted a study in China and the United States and found the toxic effect of nonphysical abuse by a supervisor is much broader than believed.

The study is one of the first to examine the effect of bad bosses in employee teams, a common feature of many businesses.

Lead investigator Crystal Farh, Ph.D., said supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another.

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” Farh said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”

Farh, assistant professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business, said the findings could likely be explained by social learning theory, in which people learn and then model behavior based on observing others, in this case the boss.

“Previous research has shown that workers emulate supervisors’ positive behaviors,” she said, “so it only makes sense they would follow negative behaviors as well.”

In the new study, Farh and Zhijun Chen, Ph.D., from the University of Western Australia studied 51 teams of employees from 10 firms in China.

Average team size was about six workers and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support, and research and development.

The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team.

“At the same time, the entire team ‘descended into conflicts,’” Farh said, “which also reduced worker contributions.”

“Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” Farh said, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely, and experience negative emotions toward them.”

To test the findings, the study was replicated in a controlled laboratory setting in the U.S., with nearly 300 people participating.

Researchers believe the findings are far-reaching as they will help companies faced with rehabilitating a team of employees following abusive supervision.

Companies will now understand that rather than individual remediation, a comprehensive, team-based intervention to improve interpersonal relationships is necessary.

Source: Michigan State University

Boss yelling photo by shutterstock.