Verbally Abused Employees More Likely to Slack Off

October 10, 2014
Aimee Simone, Associate Editor

Employees react negatively to verbal abuse from their supervisors regardless of whether they feel the abuse is intended to embarrass or motivate them.

Employees react negatively to verbal abuse from their supervisors regardless of whether they feel the abuse is intended to embarrass or motivate them, the results of a recent study suggest.

Previous research has shown that employees who experience abusive supervision, or non-physical hostility from their supervisors, are more likely to steal from their organization, sabotage their supervisor or organization, take longer breaks, and engage in other counterproductive work behaviors. The current study, published online on September 30, 2014, in Work and Stress, evaluated the relationship between abusive supervision, employees’ perceived intent for the abuse, and their counterproductive work behaviors.

A total of 268 full-time employees across various professions completed online surveys where they indicated how often their supervisor ridiculed or put them down in front of their peers. Participants were then asked to imagine several situations of abusive supervision and then identify whether the supervisor’s behavior could be explained by hostility or motivational reasons. One month later, the participants completed a second study regarding their counterproductive work behaviors.

Overall, those who reported more frequent abusive supervision in the first survey were more likely to report that they engaged in counterproductive work behaviors in the second survey. Abusive supervision was positively correlated with counterproductive behaviors directed at the supervisor and the organization, as well.

The association between abusive supervision and counterproductive behaviors was stronger among those who perceived high hostile intent when compared with those who perceived low hostile intent. Surprisingly, a similar relationship was found among those who perceived a high motivational intent. The results of a follow-up analysis indicated that the association between abusive supervision and counterproductive behavior was stronger when employees perceived high rather than low levels of motivational intent.

“Subordinates who perceive a high level of motivational intent may feel as though they are being used or treated like objects, which could lead to a violation of the psychological contract between the supervisor and subordinate,” the study authors suggested. “In addition, the subordinate may also use the intentional abusive behavior to make inferences about the behaviors that are acceptable in the organization.”

Organizations that dismiss the abusive actions of their supervisors as having “good intentions” could cause negative behavior among their employees, the authors warned.

“For example, organizations or conflict managers may attempt to placate an angry subordinate who was recently abused by describing the supervisor as having good, but probably misguided, intentions,” the researchers wrote. “This justification of abusive supervision may lead to increases in [counterproductive work behaviors].”