Consequences of Abusive Supervision

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, feedback, leadership
Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior (January 2014)
Article: Abusive supervision and feedback avoidance: The mediating role of emotional exhaustion
Authors: Whitman, M. V., Halbesleben, J. R. B., & Holmes, O.
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

We all know that bullying is a problem in schools, but only recently have I/O psychologists become interested in bullying in the workplace.

One form of non-violent workplace aggression is abusive supervision, which occurs when a supervisor exhibits hostile behaviors such as public ridicule, yelling, or breaking promises. Abusive supervision obviously has negative consequences, but in a recent paper titled Abusive Supervision and Feedback Avoidance, Marilyn Whitman and her colleagues were interested in how abusive supervision leads to some of these unfortunate results.

Not everyone is affected by abusive supervision in the same way. However, in a sample of nurses, the researchers found that abusive supervision was related to emotional exhaustion, which in turn was related to feedback avoidance. In other words, when supervisors are abusive, workers often become emotionally exhausted, and as a result they actively try to avoid getting feedback from their supervisors.

In addition, feedback avoidance leads to additional emotional exhaustion, becoming an endless loop of negative reinforcement. While avoiding an abusive supervisor might seem like a good defense mechanism for an employee, it actually tends to make things worse.

Organizations may want to consider eliminating potentially abusive supervisors during the selection process. Applicants who exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and are more likely to attribute others’ behaviors to hostile intentions are more likely to be abusive supervisors.

Organizations could also implement training programs to raise awareness regarding what could be considered abusive behaviors, as well as how to cope with and report abuse.