Abusive bosses – you know, the ones who seem to enjoy demeaning employees – are unlikely to change, even if they appear repentant, according to a Nebraska-led study.
Rather than making amends out of genuine contrition, most abusive managers engage in image control. Giving them a pass ultimately harms employee well-being and the organization over time.
“Organizational leaders or the abused employees themselves may overlook or even forgive the leader’s abusive behaviors, allowing them to get away with them and promoting a cycle of abusive leadership,” said the study’s leader, Troy Smith, assistant professor of management.
To better understand how abusive managers perceive and respond to their own behaviors, researchers surveyed supervisors across a variety of industries via an anonymous online platform. Supervisors admitted abusive behaviors that included emotional manipulation, invading privacy, gossiping and publicly demeaning employees.
Instead of expressing remorse, most supervisors worried about how other people viewed them. Following mistreatment, they engaged in superficial behaviors designed to improve their social image, such as self-promoting, doing favors, giving compliments or trying to appear busy.
I want to understand the antecedents and effects of abusive supervision to help employees and leaders themselves be more productive and experience greater well-being in the workplace.Troy Smith
The study demonstrates the futility of relying on abusive bosses themselves to change, Smith said. Instead, researchers recommended implementing and adhering to zero-tolerance policies. Past research has shown that sanctions for misbehavior effectively curtail abuse.
Ultimately, however, regaining credibility requires abusive bosses to understand their own motivations and behaviors and to seek sincere change. The researchers recommended bosses engage in daily self-reflection and an honest appraisal of their effect on employees.
“I want to understand the antecedents and effects of abusive supervision to help employees and leaders themselves be more productive and experience greater well-being in the workplace,” Smith said.
The study was published in Personnel Psychology and was featured in the Harvard Business Review. Researchers at the University of Wyoming, University of Iowa and Texas A&M University participated.
+ Additional content for Abusive Bosses Often ‘Fake Nice,’ Seldom ‘Make Nice’
Nebraska news release: Smith examines how abusive bosses ‘fake nice’ rather than ‘make nice’