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The chicken and egg of abusive workplaces

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The chicken and egg of abusive workplaces

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Whenever the issue of abuse at work is aired, the narrative is often quite clear cut.  The person wielding power is always branded as the person abusing those with less power.  For instance, a study published earlier this summer found that during a crisis, just such an abusive relationship can often emerge, with bosses taking out their fears and frustrations on those with least power, rather than perhaps those responsible for events.  It’s what’s known as displaced aggression theory.

Of course, it is not always a one way street, as a study from Hong Kong into the kind of conditions under which employees fight back against their bosses.  Two conclusions emerged from the study.  Firstly, self-control was important, as when employees didn’t have high levels of self-control, they would snap at their boss much faster than their more controlled colleagues.

Secondly, and more interestingly, the fear of punishment was also a big factor.  When a lack of self-control was paired with a lack of fear towards any potential consequences, then it resulted in a combustible atmosphere.

The researchers conducted a second study to further explore the issue.  This time they wanted to test whether abusive behaviour from bosses was occurring after deviant behaviour from employees, rather than the more traditional narrative that abusive behaviour from bosses causes employees to deviate.

Participants in the study were surveyed on two separate occasions, 20 months apart, to discover information on the type of treatment they typically received from their boss, combined with the regularity of their deviation from company policies and norms (self-reported of course, so maybe a dollop of salt to be taken with responses on this one).

The researchers discovered no tangible correlation between abusive supervision and subsequent deviance from the employee.  They did however discover the opposite happening, with employee misbehaviour resulting in abusive management behaviour at a later date.

As the first study highlighted, this response from employees would emerge when employees exhibited low self-control alongside low fear of any consequences.  It suggests that the traditional narrative may need to be re-written.

“Although this assumption often leads us to blame supervisors for abusing their power,” they write in The Journal of Applied Psychology, “our findings suggest that supervisors use abusive behaviors in reaction to deviant subordinate behaviors, perhaps to correct them.”

The researchers caution against the assumption that such workplace turmoil is the fault of one party, rather than a relational issue. But the findings, they say, signal that organizations should educate managers and subordinates about the vicious cycle that results from abusive supervision and employee misbehavior.

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