How Abuse From Your Boss May Even Itself Out

Being on the receiving end of a missive from your boss is not a nice thing, but whilst there have been various studies exploring how that makes employees feel, there have been somewhat fewer that explore the impact this has on the manager themselves.  A new study from Michigan State University attempts to fill that void.

“Based on prior research, it wasn’t clear whether supervisors even realized when they were abusive toward others,” the authors say. “However, some bosses realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it. This motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective leader behaviors.”

Moral cleansing

The research revolves around the theory of moral cleansing, and specifically how managers can ensure that their conscience is clean.  For instance, we often behave as though we have a moral bank account, with good deeds adding credit and bad deeds withdrawals.  If we do something bad, therefore, we can be motivated to do good things to restore our balance.

The researchers collected data via a number of surveys for both managers and their team at various points of the day.  The surveys aimed to capture the abusive behavior from both perspectives, and also instances of reparations by the managers towards their team afterwards.

“In addition to feeling guilty after engaging in their own abusive behavior, the supervisors felt as though they lost ‘moral credit.’ To build that credit back up, they showed types of sympathetic, supportive and reparative behaviors toward their employees,” the researchers say.

This phenomenon was especially strong in workplaces where there were strong moral and ethical values present as managers would be especially sensitive to breaking this ‘code of conduct’.

The authors believe that when we try and develop a particular culture at work, it’s crucial that we understand why managers might engage in abusive acts, and with this contextual understanding work to discourage such abuse from happening in future.

“The positive takeaway is that our research suggests that some supervisors realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it, which motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective task and person-oriented leader behaviors,” the team conclude.

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