Taking it out on survivors (People and Society)
Investigação | 21 setembro 2015 Taking it out on survivors (People and Society)

Employees with poor self-evaluations are more likely to suffer aggressions from their managers | Researcher: Pedro Neves

The interest in understanding how and why leaders abuse their subordinates in the workplace has received considerable attention in the past two decades. A study conducted by Nova SBE’s Professor Pedro Neves found that vulnerable subordinates (with a negative self-image and lack of peer support), particularly in downsized organizations, report significantly more abuse (with consequences for performance) from their leaders than less vulnerable subordinates, and other vulnerable subordinates from non-downsized organizations.

The dark side of leadership

The renewed interest in the “dark side” of leadership is due to the fact that, while our knowledge on how to create, foster and maintain positive organizations has grown immensely, we are still overwhelmed by the overabundance of abusive, coercive, divisive, and toxic leaders. Abusive supervision is the most studied dark dimension, and refers to what Bennett Tepper described as “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact”. Although it has a low base rate of occurrence, research suggests that between 10% and 16% of employees are subjected to abusive behaviors by their supervisors, bearing costs that can mount to $23.8 billion annually, in the United States alone.

Who are the potential targets of abuse?

Workplace aggression is not a random and unpredictable event – it focuses on specific targets. For example, submissive employees, characterized by low self-esteem and assertiveness and high social anxiety and introversion, may inadvertently send an “invitation” to abuse. By displaying a self-critical identity and demonstrating a low social position in the peer group, a person is signaling to perpetrators that: a) is highly vulnerable to attack and exploitation; and b) the chances of retaliation with additional hostility are improbable.

Moreover, the relationships in the workplace do not occur in a vacuum. Major organizational change interventions, such as downsizings (i.e., the planned reduction in jobs and personnel), provide a fertile ground for abuse due to two reasons: a) they help trigger the supervisor’s aggressive behaviors, because it carries a negative connotation and takes a strong emotional toll; and b) they enhance the weaknesses demonstrated by submissive employees, given the position of vulnerability survivors find themselves in.

Research findings: Who and when

The results confirmed the researchers’ hypotheses. Employees with a negative self-image and lack of peer protection working in downsized organizations are more likely to report higher abusive supervision when compared not only to less submissive colleagues, but also other submissive employees working in non-downsized organizations. It is also important to note that these effects negatively influenced subordinates’ performance ratings by the supervisors.

This study provides new opportunities for managers who strive to minimize destructive behaviors in their organizations. These strategies should focus on empowering subordinates themselves, training them in order to strengthen their positive image (self-esteem, self-efficacy, low neuroticism and internal locus of control) and promoting the development of supportive relationships among colleagues. This helps them not only to deal with, but actually prevent, abusive behaviors.

This article is based on the paper:
Neves, P. (2014). Taking it out on survivors: Downsizing, submissive employees and abusive supervision. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87, 507-534.

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