When Will Employees Speak Up In Response to Abusive Leadership?

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, fairness, leadership
Publication: Human Resource Management (2022)
Article: The dark side of leader–member exchange: Observers' reactions when leaders target their teammates for abuse.
Authors: J. Hu, X. Zheng, B.J. Tepper, N. Li, X. Liu, J. Yu
Reviewed by: Matthew Swanson

Abusive supervision, such as public shaming or bullying, impacts approximately 14% of the workforce and costs organizations around $24 billion yearly in lost productivity and mental health care costs. Importantly, it is estimated that employees are three times more likely to be a witness of abuse than to be a target of abuse. Some employees who witness abuse will sympathize with the victim and choose to help. Others will not sympathize and instead legitimize the abuse. New research (Hu et al., 2022) helps to explain why people may choose one approach or the other. One key factor concerns leader-member exchange (LMX) – or the unique relationships a leader establishes with their individual followers.


Researchers collected survey data from 378 employees (on 89 teams) in a manufacturing plant in China. Abusive supervision was assessed by asking team members how often their supervisor engaged in specific abusive behaviors toward each individual team member. Participants also reported on the strength of their relationship with the team leader. One month later, participants rated the extent that they had sympathy towards each team member and the extent that they received help from each team member.

Results indicate that when employees had a strong and unique relationship with their leader, they were also more likely to accept and legitimize that leader’s abuse of teammates. Employees who have trusting relationships with their leader may rationalize abusive behavior so as not to appear disloyal. The researchers found that these employees felt less sympathy toward the victims, and consequently were less likely to help them.


Organizations should recognize the influence that strong leader-follower relationships can have over employees, and always seek to foster healthy workplace relationships. Specifically, this study suggests that leaders should consider how the nature of relationships can alter the way that abuse is perceived. Leader training and intervention activities should consider how leaders may be affecting their employees’ ability to feel sympathy toward coworkers and stand up in their defense.


Hu, J. , Zheng, X., Tepper, B. J., Li, N., Liu, X., & Yu, J. (2022). The dark side of leader–member exchange: Observers’ reactions when leaders target their teammates for abuse. Human Resource Management, 61(2), 199–213.

Image credit: istockphoto/Bojan89