Both management professionals and researchers are increasingly interested in the “dark side” of leadership. On the extremely dark end of the leadership spectrum, we find supervisors who put their subordinates down in front of others, lie and break promises, yell at subordinates, and blame subordinates for their own mistakes. One might feel tempted to view such abusive behavior as a mere exception – but think again: Recent research suggests that in the U.S. alone, more than 13% of subordinates become victims of abusive supervision each year, with annual costs for the U.S. economy estimated at almost $24 billion.
In an earlier post, I have reported about a study that has shown supervisors are more likely to lash out toward perceived underperformers, possibly in an attempt to evoke greater effort. The consequences were ironic, though, because we found that abusive supervision actually diminished subordinate’s job performance. Today, I would like to report on a study that takes a different (and probably less cynical) look on the origins of abusive supervision. Surely, besides subordinates’ perceived underperformance, there are also less insidious reasons for such abuse. We know, for example, that employees’ work stress has grown consistently in recent years. Also, research has shown that stress often triggers aggressive behavior, including workplace bullying and harassment. Could it be, then, that some supervisors lash out toward their subordinates simply because they are over-stressed?
Together with colleagues, we conducted a survey in a telecommunication services company to examine this possibility. To measure work stress, we asked supervisors to rate their emotional exhaustion – a core symptom of burnout that indicates the degree to which people are stressed out at work and feel drained and fatigued. In addition, we asked subordinates to rate their supervisors’ abusive behavior.
Results were disconcerting and encouraging at the same time. On the one hand, we indeed found a positive relation between supervisors’ exhaustion and abusive behavior. In other words, work stress appears as an important driver of supervisors’ destructive acts. On the other hand, some supervisors can deal with such stress in a remarkable and productive manner. It turns out that a personality trait called self-monitoring makes the critical difference. Supervisors with high self-monitoring strive to act in line with social norms and expectations. Even if stressed out, such supervisors find it crucial to not lose their temper and, as a result, they effectively resist possible destructive tendencies. Low self-monitors, however, are highly susceptible to emotional exhaustion, and they are particularly likely to lash out toward subordinates when experiencing high work stress.
What do we make of this from an HRM perspective? What can companies do to confine supervisors’ dysfunctional, aggressive, and abusive behavior? In the first place, it is worthwhile to counteract supervisors’ stress at work as much as possible. Burnout research has shown that emotional exhaustion is often a result of extreme job demands (e.g., excessive work load or time pressure). Hence, effective stress prevention programs can center on managing the job demands supervisors face, or on providing supervisors with sufficient resources (e.g., supportive coworkers, superiors, or HRM tools and policies) to successfully deal with their demands. Additionally, once a supervisor suffers from burnout and emotional exhaustion, targeted HRM interventions (e.g., stress management and training programs) can be helpful to overcome these stress symptoms. And finally, our results of course speak to the important role of self-monitoring. As a stable personality characteristic, it is very difficult to develop this trait. Companies may benefit, however, from considering self-monitoring in selection and promotion decisions for supervisory positions. Given that high self-monitors can better withstand the consequences of their emotional exhaustion, HRM decision-makers may be well advised to put a premium on this personality trait when assigning potentially stressful leadership roles.
The research reported here is work-in-progress. It is conducted in cooperation with Catherine Lam and Xu Huang. For details, please contact Frank Walter.