Reality is not as simple as TV shows suggest when Donald Trump bawls out a contestant in The Apprentice or cantankerous chef Gordon Ramsay yells at a young wannabe on his team. Don't blame the victim is the usual mantra when it comes to workplace bullying. Yet controversial new research is looking at whether workers who suffer abusive supervision contribute to their plight.
Employees can bring on conflict when they consciously or unconsciously provoke bosses, particularly when one or both sides are stressed. Recent research has focused on what causes friction in the relationship between a supervisor and their staff. It can be the organisational culture or climate, the individuals' personalities or an interaction between the two that sparks strife, according to Alannah Rafferty, a professor in Organisation and Management at the Australian School of Business. When combined with some psychological factors, a trivial incident can quickly escalate to fracture a working relationship.
Typically, problems start when a supervisor thinks workers are letting the team down by not pulling their weight. Psychologists suggest some workers with low self-esteem even "ask for trouble", as if to confirm their worst opinion of themselves. And much depends on supervisors' ability to handle the negative behaviours to prevent them from devolving into all-round lose-lose situations.
Work presents both a financial and a "psychological contract", and aggression emerges when the organisation is seen as breaking its side of the bargain. Staff may feel an organisation treats them unjustly, that they are overloaded with work, or suffer ambiguous roles and confusing responsibilities, notes Rafferty.
To date, only a few studies have investigated the characteristics of the target of workplace aggression – for example, "how intelligent, neurotic or anxious they are". But now research has started to consider the role of the target in contributing to his or her own victimisation. "Abusive supervision is not typically viewed as a conflict between two parties. Rather, it is seen as a negative act perpetrated by supervisors towards subordinates, with little consideration of the nature of the ongoing perpetrator-target relationship," says Rafferty. "One reason for not considering the target's role in abusive supervision is fear of blaming the victim, that such an investigation would implicitly suggest that targets are partially to blame for their own abuse – a message that both condones abusive behaviour and further victimises the target of mistreatment."
The responsibility for abusive supervision lies with both perpetrators and targets, according to new research by Rafferty and Sandy Hershcovis, an expert on workplace aggression from the University of Manitoba in Canada. Generally workplace aggression ranges from incivility (rudeness and discourtesy), to bullying (persistently criticising employees' work, yelling, spreading gossip or lies, ignoring or excluding workers, and insulting employees' habits, attitudes or private lives). Among different sources of workplace mistreatment, emanating from supervisors, co-workers and the public, Hershcovis says abusive supervision has the strongest negative effects.
Rafferty and Hershcovis's research, in a soon-to-be-published book chapter, The antecedents of abusive supervision, helps to answer the question: why do supervisors pick on specific staff members and treat them unjustly? Poor performance is an obvious cause, but bullying behaviour can also be a response to a target employee's personality, attitudes, or other behaviour. "Certain targets – those who are anxious and tense – seem to be at higher risk of abusive supervision," says Hershcovis. This happens particularly when there is deep-level dissimilarity between a leader and subordinate, and conflict between them. It can also be a reaction to organisational stressors.
Acts of Provocation?
The authors say victims can precipitate their own mistreatment by behaving in a provocative manner that elicits a negative reaction from the boss. Abusive supervision lowers job satisfaction and organisational commitment, and can cause "resistance behaviour", such as refusing to follow supervisor requests, problem drinking, deviant actions and a general failure to engage in positive workplace behaviours. In turn, supervisors may become frustrated with – and ultimately abusive towards – employees who hold negative work attitudes and are poor performers.
"Employees who are either too passive and overly conciliatory, or too dominating – forceful with their opinions or controlling – are more likely to be victimised at work. Targets who are disagreeable and neurotic are more likely to be treated with incivility," says Rafferty. "Supervisors expect employees to exhibit traits that foster a positive and productive work environment." When leaders perceive their subordinates as disloyal, unlikeable, or incompetent, they may be more likely to engage in abusive supervision – such individuals have been dubbed "provocative victims" because they are difficult to work with and can bring out the worst in bosses.
A case in point is "Kevin", a serial victim with a history of falling out with employers, being dismissed and being involved in official complaints. He is an educator and former union representative who is vocal on workers' rights. "Abusive supervision is not, in my experience, related to personality types per se," he says. "The inevitable conflict that arises between manager and worker is, more likely, determined by differences in ideology as well as situational factors … where the manager views the staff member as a threat and possible detractor. I have experienced managerial abuse on two occasions in two different settings. In the first instance, some managers abused their powers, and fabricated documents to justify termination of employment. In the second instance, managers abused their powers to fabricate a case that justified abuse by a psychopathic boss, who enjoyed the process of manipulating others as much as he enjoyed the impact on the victim."
Rafferty says it is not surprising that Kevin's comments are focused on the role of the situation. "It is pretty unlikely for most people to identify their own personality or performance issues as major factors contributing to abuse. Rather, we look for issues in others or in our environment to explain why events happen to us." While Rafferty is not denying that situation is important, she says: "We also have to look at the role of employees as potentially unwitting instigators of their own mistreatment."
The dynamics of abusive supervision – as with incivility at work – may involve a thoughtless act escalating into aggression. Simple acts such as walking by a colleague without saying hello, forgetting to say "please" or "thank you" can lead to a retaliatory response. The target of the thoughtless act may respond by saying something narky about the instigator to a colleague. This might get back to the instigator, who, unaware of the original transgression, may escalate it by confronting the rumour-monger – thus the original "victim" is seen as an overt perpetrator. "This simple example of an incivility spiral demonstrates how easily a target can be the initial cause of his or her own mistreatment," says Rafferty.
Me, Myself and My View
Psychology also throws light on the interactions between workers and bosses. Individuals aim to verify their self-views, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, and work to create environments that support that self-view. Employees with high self-esteem exhibit higher organisational commitment when treated fairly. "Those with negative self-views, such as those with low self-esteem, may actively seek out abusive supervision," notes Rafferty. "Further, low self-esteem employees are less likely to quit the organisation, and are more likely to antagonise an abusive supervisor by engaging in deviant behaviours towards them, thus perpetuating negative treatment. These aggravating behaviours may lead supervisors to respond in an aggressive manner in an effort to correct the employee's negative behaviour. However, the supervisor's abusive actions actually serve to verify this behaviour, leading to a vicious cycle."
It is not only individuals with low self-esteem, but also employees who may be unaware they possess characteristics that aggravate or irritate a supervisor, Rafferty reports. "People who are characteristically anxious and worried can contribute to a more negative work environment because these personality traits are all related to a tendency to react negatively to a variety of situations."
Targets of abusive supervision may engage in various active or passive but provocative behaviours that draw negative attention, Rafferty says. For example, supervisors may perceive employees who do not put forward their best work effort, or who complain frequently about work tasks, to be lazy. These negative behaviours can harm organisational performance, and in turn the reputation of the supervisor. Therefore, employees who engage in workplace deviance are likely to meet with supervisor disapproval creating an ongoing spiral of aggression, insist the authors.
"When employees are treated poorly by their direct supervisor, they seek to restore a sense of autonomy and control and to rebalance the social exchange relationship by withholding voluntary citizenship behaviours," says Rafferty. "For instance, subordinates reduce the extent to which they contribute work-related ideas, information, or opinions to benefit the organisation." Sometimes employees withdraw into "hidden" behaviours, such as silence, when treated poorly to avoid additional negative behaviours from their supervisors.
"It is important to note that targets are not, by themselves, the cause of their own abuse," says Rafferty. "The supervisor should refrain from reacting to a target's instigating characteristics or behaviours with aggressive responses. Supervisors should instead deal with the target's misbehaviour, not by yelling or talking about them negatively, but by role-modelling appropriate behaviours, identifying positive alternative behaviours or sending an employee to training, for example," she suggests.
Understanding the mechanisms behind abuse can help design measures to prevent bullying at work. "In the same way that research in abusive supervision recommends appropriate training for supervisors, it will be important for employees to recognise that their own interaction styles and behaviours may trigger abusive responses," says Rafferty. "Though such research in no way absolves supervisors for their own abusive acts, understanding one's potential role through preventative training can help increase employee awareness about the kinds of behaviours that may put them at higher risk, which may help prevent some acts of abusive supervision."
Most organisations provide supervisory training programs, which include such topics as interpersonal skills and communicating effectively with subordinates. The authors suggest organisations could also educate new supervisors about the key factors that may cause them to become frustrated and potentially abusive at work. With this knowledge, a greater emphasis can be placed on developing supervisors to deal effectively with poor performing subordinates.
There is limited research about how to deal with abusive supervision once it occurs. Hershcovis has found that organisational investigations into abusive supervision and other forms of aggression tend to focus on getting to the bottom of the matter and rectifying the supervisor's behaviour. The research suggests the need for a broader look at both sides of the relationship to identify contributing factors. "We recognise this seems dangerously close to a ‘blame the victim' argument," say the authors. "However, if we accept that abusive supervision is part of an ongoing exchange, then as with any other type of conflict resolution, both parties need to consider their role and work to repair the relationship."
This story was first published at by [email protected] School of Business and is re-used here with permission.