Abusive Supervision

Abusive supervision refers to sustained displays of nonphysical forms of hostility perpetrated by supervisors against their direct reports. Examples of behavior that fall within the abusive supervision content domain include public derogation, undermining, and explosive outbursts. Key features of the construct are that abusive supervision refers to ongoing manifestations of hostility rather than discrete episodes and that abusers may or may not intend to cause harm. Hence, for example, yelling at subordinates for the purpose of eliciting greater task performance could be considered abusive. It should also be noted that abusive supervision constitutes a subjective assessment, in the sense that behavior that is perceived to be abusive in one context may not be so perceived in another context, and two subordinates could render different interpretations of the same supervisor behavior. Similar concepts that have been the focus of systematic empirical research include bullying, petty tyranny, and downward mobbing.

Abusive Supervision Epidemiology

According to epidemiological studies, abusive supervision is much more common than physical violence or sexual harassment; one in seven employees reports that his or her current supervisor is abusive, approximately 50% of employees can expect to have an abusive supervisor at some point in their working life, and most abusers target multiple subordinates simultaneously. Half of abusive supervisors are women, most abusers target same-sex victims, and there are sex differences in terms of the ways in which men and women abuse their subordinates; women bullies engage in more social manipulation (i.e., rumors and insulting comments about one’s personal life), and male bullies engage in more covert aggression, acts that on the surface appear rational, such as appraising targets unfairly and preventing them from expressing themselves.

Abusive Supervision Obstacles to Systematic Empirical Inquiry

There are challenges associated with studying abusive supervision, not the least of which is the fact that researchers typically rely on subjective reports as to individuals’ level of exposure. A problem with this approach to measuring abusive supervision is that some people may underreport their level of exposure because they are reluctant to admit that they have been victimized, whereas others exaggerate their supervisors’ hostility. A related obstacle to conducting valid empirical research is that linking abusive supervision and important outcomes requires gathering data from abused subordinates who are willing to identify themselves. Failing that, perceived abuse cannot be linked with data collected from independent sources (e.g., observers, supervisors, archival records). A third challenge is that organizations may be hesitant to allow researchers to administer surveys on the topic. What is clear is that although abusive supervision is a low-base-rate phenomenon that is difficult to study, the research to date consistently suggests that its effects can be severe.

Consequences of Abusive Supervision

Compared with nonabused subordinates, abused subordinates have higher quit rates, and among those who stay in the job, abusive supervision is negatively related to subordinates’ job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and trust in the supervisor, and positively related to psychological distress (i.e., depression, anxiety, and burnout) and conflict between work and family obligations. The cost per serious case of abuse in the workplace has been estimated at between $17,000 and $24,000 in terms of absenteeism, turnover, legal costs, and reduced productivity, and the total cost to organizations has been estimated to be more than $23.8 billion in the United States alone.

Abusive supervision is not strongly related to bottom-line measures of productivity such as sales volume, number of units produced, and work quality. The most likely reason for this is that employees cannot easily modify these kinds of performance contributions, regardless of how they might feel about their boss. For example, assembly-line workers cannot simply stop producing when they do not like something at work, and salespeople on commission cannot stop selling to get back at their boss, at least not without hurting themselves. But research suggests that abused subordinates will retaliate against their supervisor and their organization by withholding citizenship behaviors, contributions such as being helpful and courteous, and showing initiative. Abused subordinates can express their resentment by modifying their citizenship behavior, because these contributions are to a large extent discretionary, meaning that they fall beyond the job requirements. These kinds of contributions are very important because they provide organizations with flexibility and the capacity to cope with uncertainty. Hence, organizations may be at a competitive disadvantage when a substantial percentage of subordinates withhold citizenship because their supervisors are abusive.

Although abused subordinates tend to perform fewer acts of citizenship than do nonabused subordinates, some abused subordinates will nevertheless do so. However, there are differences in the ways abused subordinates respond to their coworkers’ citizenship performance. Intuitively, we would expect that employees will have more favorable attitudes toward their job when their coworkers perform more acts of citizenship. This notion is rooted in the assumption that good citizenship makes the workplace a more attractive and comfortable environment. However, it was found that this was not the case for work groups in which the supervisor was more abusive. In those instances, employees were less satisfied when their coworkers engaged in greater citizenship behavior. Subsequent inquiry explained why this was so. In groups led by abusive supervisors, subordinates performed citizenship behaviors not out of a genuine desire to benefit the organization, but to portray themselves in a favorable light, to make their coworkers look less dedicated by comparison, and to direct their supervisors’ hostility at others. Consequently, acts of citizenship may cause fellow coworkers to experience unfavorable attitudes when the supervisor is abusive.

Abusive Supervision Moderating Factors

Abusive supervision does not affect all employees the same way. In three studies, it was found that the deleterious effects of abusive supervision on employees’ attitudes and psychological health were more pronounced when the subordinate has less job mobility (i.e., when the subordinate is trapped in a job because he or she has few attractive alternatives to the current position), when the abuse is selective rather than distributed (i.e., when subordinates are singled out for abuse as opposed to being targeted along with others), and when the target attributes the abusive behavior to stable characteristics of the supervisor (e.g., meanness, incompetence, or indifference) rather than to characteristics of the organization (e.g., time pressures or competitive work climates).

Another study found that subordinates’ personalities influenced how they responded to abusive supervision. This study suggested that abused subordinates were more likely to engage in dysfunctional forms of resistance (i.e., nonconformity to downward influence attempts that involves outright refusal and ignoring the supervisor’s requests) and that this effect was more pronounced among subordinates who were dispositionally disagreeable (i.e., unconcerned about the quality of their interpersonal relationships with coworkers) and dispositionally low in conscientiousness (unconcerned about fulfilling task-related obligations). This research provides support for the idea that subordinates’ personalities influence the extent to which they engage in retaliation behaviors against abusive supervisors; employees retaliate against abusive supervisors by actively refusing to do what their supervisors want them to do, but only when they are unconcerned about the relational and task-related consequences associated with noncompliance.

Antecedents of Abusive Supervision

Comparatively little research has explored the antecedents of abusive supervision. One study revealed no consistent relationships between hostile supervisor behavior and supervisor disposition (e.g., theory X beliefs, low self-esteem, and low tolerance for ambiguity), situational factors (e.g., institutionalized norms, power, and stressors), or their interactions. A more promising line of inquiry has taken a victim-precipitation perspective, the notion that some individuals may become at risk of being victimized by eliciting or provoking the hostility of potential perpetrators and that perpetrator and situational factors contribute more strongly to the occurrence of abusive supervision when a vulnerable target is available. The study in question found that supervisors who experienced procedural injustice (i.e., decision makers using unfair procedures during the process of rendering allocation decisions) were more abusive when they had a high negative-affectivity subordinate, one who was dispositionally inclined to experience high levels of distressing emotions and who was likely to be perceived as weak, vulnerable, and ripe for exploitation. An implication of this finding is that supervisors inclined to hostility choose targets strategically, focusing their abuse on subordinates who appear to be “good” targets. This work also suggests that perpetrators may express their hostility against targets other than the source of their frustration (i.e., subordinates who are not responsible for the injustices supervisors experience).

Coping With Abusive Supervision

Is there anything abused subordinates can do to cope with their supervisors’ hostility? Abused subordinates use two general kinds of coping strategies, which may be labeled avoidant coping (physical and psychological withdrawal, maintaining physical distance, not coming to work, and reliance on drugs and alcohol) and active coping (directly communicating injustices to the supervisor). Research suggests that abused subordinates are more likely to use avoidant coping than active coping but that the use of active coping is a more effective strategy; in a 6-month longitudinal study, it was found that the relationship between abusive supervision measured at Time 1 and psychological distress (i.e., burnout, anxiety, and depression) measured at Time 2 was stronger when subordinates used avoidant coping and weaker when subordinates used active coping. That is, active coping buffered the stressful effects of abusive supervision and avoidant coping exacerbated those effects.

Abusive Supervision Concluding Comments

Given the significant costs that abusive supervision can have for organizations and their members, organizations would be well-advised to take it seriously. This involves a two-pronged effort focusing on both (a) prevention and (b) management of abuse when it does occur. Organizations can prevent the occurrence of abusive supervision by fostering a culture of civility that is incompatible with abusive behavior. This can be accomplished by implementing 360-degree feedback programs and training employees and managers to develop the skills needed to provide and to openly receive constructive feedback. Where abuse occurs, organizations can manage its effects by developing disciplinary procedures for those who violate the norms for acceptable interpersonal behavior, encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward, and sending the message that those claims will be taken seriously. The evidence suggesting that direct coping produces more favorable outcomes than avoidant coping means that it may be fruitful to encourage rank-and-file employees to bring abusive behavior to the attention of higher authorities. In addition, managers should be trained to spot some of the markers for abusive behavior, such as withdrawal behaviors, low morale, and distrust.


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