New Hope in Dealing With an Abusive Supervisor

Abusive supervisors are ubiquitous in the workplace, causing distress for their employees and costing employers in the US an estimated $23.8 billion each year.  Organizational interventions are often lacking, and employees compensate for the repeated intimidation, humiliation and verbal abuse by engaging a range of coping strategies including alcohol use, withdrawing psychologically and quitting.  Research in this area has primarily focused on the ways an employee can lessen the personal impact of their supervisor’s behavior.  Is there another way for employees to address and end this ‘spiral of abuse’?

Recent research explored when abusive behavior is likely to occur and what alternatives here may be to change the situation. These new findings suggest that balancing power between the employee and the supervisor can change the impact and/or pattern of abuse.  This can be done either through a) decreasing the employee’s dependence on their supervisor, or b) increasing the dependence of the supervisor on the employee. Although the first strategy works, the researchers found that the latter strategy, increasing the leader’s dependence on the employee, was the most effective at reducing abusive behavior and even led to the supervisor making amends to repair the relationship.

While many factors impact power dynamics, this research suggests that employees can take an active role in shifting the power balance.  They can work to decrease their dependence on their supervisor through an avoiding strategy by finding other paths to reach their goals or by changing their goals and resource needs.  Employees can also use an approach strategy that increases their supervisor’s dependence on them, for example, by developing and improving skills or obtaining resources.  In addition, employees can form coalitions with co-workers valued by their supervisors to increase their perceived value.  Further, to avoid creating the conditions for abusive supervision, organizations can implement strategies such as shared performance goals that recognize the importance of mutual dependence in balancing power.  Although the research was conducted in China, a collectivist culture, the authors believe the same strategy will work in western, individualistic cultures as well.

ENDNOTES

Wee, E. M., Hui, L., Dong, L., & Jun, L. (2017). Moving from abuse to reconciliation: A power-dependence perspective on when and how a follower can break the spiral of abuse.  Academy of Management Journal. 60(6), 2352 – 2380.  doi: 10.5465/amj.2015.0866 

                        author

Chris Straw

Chris Straw is currently a Project Manager at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University where she supports applications projects and other initiatives related to the Dynamical Systems Theory. Her interests lie in considering conflict, cooperation and collaboration through a systems lens,… MORE >

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