Both managers and employees sometimes act inappropriately in the workplace. For example, managers can excessively yell at, ridicule, or make fun of those working for them. This is called abusive supervision.
Similarly, employees can deliberately break rules and ignore norms, harming the organization they work for in the process. This is called organizational defiance.
Researchers have noticed that abusive supervision and organizational defiance often occur in the same workplaces. But which one is the cause, and which one is the effect?
The traditional belief is that abusive supervision leads to organizational defiance. Basically, if the boss treats employees poorly, they ultimately retaliate against the organization. When employees experience abusive supervision and feel like they are being taken advantage of, they may feel a need to punish the organization in order to restore balance.
Alternatively, when dealing with abusive supervisors, employees may have to focus so much of their attention on the abuse that they have trouble devoting attention toward controlling their impulses. This can lead to acting in ways that are inappropriate.
In the current study, the authors examined the opposite possibility. Namely, that when employees act out, it causes supervisors to become abusive.
When supervisors need to deal with employee misbehavior, they lose some of their own ability to practice self-control. This may lead managers to act in ways that would otherwise be inhibited. Also, in response to employee defiance, managers may feel the need to “save face” or project an aura of authority, which could lead to acting in a more authoritarian or controlling manner.
Finally, sometimes employees who act out may be inadvertently sending cues to their managers, inviting them to join in the same norm-violating behavior.
THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY
The current study used an advanced data-collection method to show that organizational defiance by employees causes abusive supervision by managers, which is the reverse of what previous researchers had assumed.
But, like many aspects of human behavior, it is not quite so simple. The researchers also showed that abusive supervision can sometimes cause employee defiance. This was especially true when the employees lacked self-control, and when they intended to leave the organization. Under these circumstances, employees who face abusive leadership are unable to refrain from bad behavior, and they have little incentive for doing so, since they plan to leave the company anyway.
The authors also showed that if abusive supervision and employee defiance are capable of causing each other, a vicious cycle emerges. Both negative aspects can feed off of each other and escalate into an unpleasant work environment for everybody.
So how can organizational leaders create a workplace that curbs inappropriate behavior from both managers and employees? The results of this article indicate that simply firing offenders may not be the right answer, since firing abusive managers won’t help if their behavior was caused by defiant employees.
What organizations can do is stress the importance of standards for employee conduct, insisting that abusive management is no excuse to retaliate against the organization. This can help slow the vicious cycle.
Also, employees and managers can be selected specifically for their capacity for self-control. This helps to make sure a bad situation does not escalate, and that both employees and managers can always respond to others in a level-headed manner.
Lian, H., Ferris, D. L., Morrison, R., & Brown, D. J. (2014). Blame it on the supervisor or the subordinate? Reciprocal relations between abusive supervision and organizational deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(4), 651-664.