Supervisors who are abusive to individual employees can cause conflict among their entire work team and hurt productivity, according to new research by a business scholar from Michigan State University.
“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,” says Crystal Farh, lead investigator of the study and assistant professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business.
The study, conducted in China and the United States, suggests the toxic effect of nonphysical abuse by a supervisor is much broader than believed. The report, published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology, is one of the first studies to examine the effect of bad bosses in employee teams.
“Supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another,” Farh says.
The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team. At the same time, the entire team was found to reduce contributions.
Farh says the findings could likely be explained by social learning theory, in which people learn and then model behavior based on observing others, in this case the boss. Previous research has shown that workers emulate supervisors’ positive behaviors. This study suggests they emulate negative behaviors as well.
For the study, Farh and Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia studied more than 50 teams of employees from 10 firms in China. Average team size was about six workers and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support, and research and development.
The study was replicated in a controlled laboratory setting in the United States, with nearly 300 people participating.
The findings have implications for companies faced with rehabilitating a team of employees following abusive supervision. In the past, companies may have simply targeted abused employees with efforts to restore their self-esteem. While that’s still important, Farh says, efforts should also be made to fix the team’s interpersonal relationships by re-establishing trust and harmony.