The Consequences of Abusive Supervision

Abusive supervision is detrimental to the workplace. While research has previously confirmed that abusive supervision can deplete an employee’s sense of self and—as a result—lead to acts of deviance in the workplace, there is no integrated approach to the behavioral outcomes of abusive supervision. A new study (Vogel & Mitchell, 2015) provides a unified perspective and examines what happens to employee behavior as a result of abusive supervision.


The study finds that abusive supervision motivates two types of behavior: self-defense (i.e. workplace deviance) and self-presentation (i.e. putting on a façade and ingratiation). First, in order to reassert control and protect their self-image, employees of abusive supervisors will act out in self-defense. This self-defense perspective asserts that the reduced self-esteem caused by abusive supervision leads to defiant behavior, such as standing up to a supervisor or organization.

In addition to protecting their self-esteem through acts of deviance, employees of abusive supervisors will also engage in self-presentation behavior to increase their sense of belonging among coworkers. The authors found evidence for two particular self-presentation behaviors that occur as a result of abusive supervision: putting on a façade (pretending to embrace organizational values even if they do not reflect personal values), and ingratiation (attempts to be more likeable and accepted within the workgroup). Both façade of conformity and ingratiation aim to please managers and coworkers in order to compensate for diminished self-esteem.

However, there is an exception to this model. Employees who are psychologically detached from work or who intend to leave the organization do not place as much value on their supervisor’s treatment. The authors theorize that employees who want to leave are less committed to the organization and are not as influenced by hostile leadership. Therefore, employees who intend to leave the organization are not as motivated to engage in self-defense and self-presentation.


The bottom line is that abusive supervision reduces the self-esteem of subordinates. To compensate for the reduced self-esteem that occurs as a result of abusive supervision, employees may engage in destructive work behavior and also try to be likeable and fit in with the social group. While fitting in may sound positive, reduced self-esteem and potential destructive behavior are things which any organization should want to eliminate. To do so, cracking down on abusive supervision would seem to be a good start.

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Vogel, R. M., & Mitchell, M. S. (2015). The motivational effects of diminished self-esteem for employees who experience abusive supervision. Journal of Management