Bad Behavior at Work: Are Managers Asking for It?

Counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs) occur when employees do things that go against organizational goals. For example, stealing, bullying, unnecessary absence, etc., are all classified as counterproductive work behaviors. I-O psychology research has typically tried to predict which type of person will engage in these devious behaviors. However, a recent study (Shoss, Eisenberger, Restubog, & Zagenczyk, 2013) has found that certain organizations may also be causing an increase in bad behavior.


What things do organizations do that lead to these detrimental outcomes? The study found that abusive supervision by bosses is to blame. Abusive supervision occurs when managers belittle their employees or otherwise treat them badly. When this happens, employees have lower perception of organizational support, meaning employees do not feel that the organization cares about them or values their contributions. The feeling that the organization does not care was exacerbated when employees think that the abusive supervisor embodies the entire organization’s attitudes about employees, and is not merely driven by independent personal motives.

So if abusive supervision makes employees believe the organization does not care about them, what happens then? Employees may choose to engage in behavior that is counterproductive to the organization as a means of revenge against the organization. The study also found that job performance may decrease. This includes lower performance for parts of the job that are formally included in job requirements (in-role performance) as well as parts of the job that are not included in job requirements (extra-role performance). Once again, when employees perceive that the abusive supervisor embodies the entire organization, these findings were all strengthened.


What can we learn from this? Organizations that want to reduce counterproductive work behavior and improve their employees’ performance should not view these outcomes as being entirely dependent on the employees. Organizations play a large role in fostering the kind of behavior that they seek. This study highlights the detriments of abusive supervision, especially when it appears that the supervisor who delivers the abuse is representing the organization as a whole. For best results, leaders should strive to emphasize that abuse is not valued by the organization and that abusive supervisors will not be tolerated.


Shoss, M.K., Eisenberger, R., Restubog, S.L.D., Zagenczyk T.J. (2013). Blaming the organization for abusive supervision: The roles of perceived organizational support and supervisor’s organizational embodiment. Journal of Applied Psychology98(1), 158-168.