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The viral nature of abusive leadership

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The viral nature of abusive leadership

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Overly aggressive and abusive bosses have little place in a social business.  Research last year showed that such a manager can kill any attempts to collaborate because they so often dominate any collective proceedings.  It is equally risky as so many social efforts begin with what’s known as a burning platform, or crisis that reinforces the need for change.  A study from earlier this year highlighted how such environments can often prompt managers to be abusive to those with little power of their own.

A fresh study highlights how this toxic environment can rapidly spread throughout an organization.  The research highlights how abusive behaviour towards an employee not only affects that specific employee, but it also encourages other members of the team to begin acting abusively towards one another.

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” the researchers said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”

The researchers suggest this spread of behaviours can be explained by social learning theory, which suggests that people learn, then model their behaviours based upon observing others.  In this case, the observation is obviously of their boss.  So it’s not just the positive behaviours of a manager that is likely to be mimicked, their negative ones are too.

The study saw participants suffer a range of nonphysical abuse, including things such as demeaning emails and verbal abuse.  It probably goes without saying that those who suffered this directly felt pretty bad, and reported feeling devalued, whilst also subsequently contributing less to the team.  At the same time however, the whole team rapidly descended into frequent conflicts, thus reducing the effectiveness of the entire team.

“Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” the research says, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them.”

The findings from the study were replicated both in China and the United States, suggesting it could be uniform across various cultures.  The research has clear implications for how companies can handle situations where abusive behaviour has been exhibited.  It’s clear that responses cannot be limited to those directly involved in any incidents, but need to include all members of the team.

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