Abusive Supervision May Have Roots in Childhood

angry boss slapping table
Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Roots Run Deep: Investigating Psychological Mechanisms Between History of Family Aggression and Abusive Supervision
Authors: P.R.J.M. Garcia, S.L.D. Restubog, C.S. Kiewitz, K. L. Scott, & R.L. Tang
Reviewed by: Amber Davidson

Angry supervisors are a common workplace problem, and the consequences are detrimental. This can include a supervisor who is angered too easily or a situation when the supervisor’s anger is disproportional to the situation at hand. This study (Garcia et al., 2014) explores the true reasons behind this anger, hypothesizing that a history of family aggression is the root of angry reactions and abusive supervision.


Parents are the main role models for children when they are young and children have a tendency to adopt the same coping techniques and reactions that they see their parents using. When a child grows up seeing an excess of family aggression, there are conscious and unconscious consequences. Exposure to aggression shows a child that this is acceptable behavior and this carries over into adult life, potentially creating an abusive supervisor. Seeing aggressive behavior lead to a successful outcome will also solidify the notion that aggression and abusive behavior will get the desired action or reaction. This ultimately means that children who grow up watching family aggression have the potential to become abusive supervisors because they were taught that aggression brings about desired results.


The study finds considerable evidence showing that family aggression does in fact increase the chances of abusive behavior in the workplace. This effect goes beyond the anger that is caused by situational factors, organizational mistreatment, demographical variables, or subordinates’ personality. The social learning theory was supported, meaning children who grow up seeing, and surrounded by, family aggression learn that abusive behavior will produce the outcome they desire.


The authors also found that rumination, or the tendency to focus and dwell on negative past events, can make things worse. The association between abusive family life and abusive supervision was stronger when these supervisors engaged in more rumination. By focusing on the unpleasant aspects of growing up amidst family aggression and turmoil, supervisors became more likely to think hostile thoughts and experience hostile feelings. This led ruminating supervisors to act more hostile in the workplace.


This study is important because it helps identify the root cause of abusive behavior in the workplace. This is crucial because abusive supervisors can have strong negative impacts on employees and the company as a whole. 

Two steps can be taken to decrease the negative outcomes of abusive supervision. The first is to train abusive supervisors through cognitive-behavioral coaching. This may include emotional intelligence training, in order to help supervisors gain control of the angry behavior. Training can also help limit rumination for supervisors, which may help decrease the occurrence of angry thoughts and feelings, even when supervisors are predisposed to have them. 

The second step that organizations can take is to not let supervisors with abusive potential into the organization in the first place. This can be done by altering the recruitment and selection process to help identify those supervisors who are most likely to lead employees in a positive manner, and not those who are reduced to abusive supervision.


Garcia, P. R. J. M., Restubog, S. L. D., Kiewitz, C., Scott, K. L., & Tang, R. L. (2014). Roots Run Deep: Investigating Psychological Mechanisms Between History of Family Aggression and Abusive Supervision. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(5), 883-898.