“Research shows that victims of abusive supervision are lower performers, leave the organization in droves, and do things like pilfer the organization’s coffers.”
When supervisors are verbally abusive to their subordinates, it harms not only the employees, but the organization as a whole, says Texas A&M University Professor of Management Stephen Courtright, whose study reveals it’s often factors outside of work that cause bad boss behavior.
In “My Family Made Me Do It: A Cross-Domain, Self-Regulatory Perspective on Antecedents to Abusive Supervision,” published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers looked at the impact of home life on supervisors’ abusive behavior.
“Research shows that victims of abusive supervision are lower performers, leave the organization in droves, and do things like pilfer the organization’s coffers,” says Courtright, who specializes in organizational leadership at Mays Business School. “They’ve also been shown to experience deteriorating physical health, drink alcohol more heavily, and abuse spouses and children.”
But while it’s useful to know the consequences of abusive supervision, Courtright argues that organizations also want to know how to prevent it. He notes that previous research has focused on factors within the work environment, such as perceived injustices or abusive supervision by top organizational leaders, or certain personal characteristics that predict whether a supervisor will be abusive.
“The implication has been that if you ‘fix’ the organization by getting rid of unfair practices or by hiring and promoting the right leaders, then abusive supervision won’t happen. But it’s not that simple,” he asserts.
Instead, Courtright and his co-authors theorized that “ego depletion” stemming from “family-to-work conflict” is a key reason why supervisors behave abusively toward subordinates.
“Ego depletion is the inability to control one’s impulses due to mental exhaustion,” Courtright explains. “And family-work conflict occurs when family demands or problems affect one’s ability to work. Going into the study, we connected these two dots and predicted that family-work conflict could cause supervisors to be abusive toward subordinates because feeling that you’re not able to do your job due to family problems induces mental exhaustion. This feeling of exhaustion and helplessness translates into a loss of self-control, which would make managers more likely to act out their home-based frustration on subordinates.”
To examine the connection between problems at home and abusive supervision, the researchers first sent surveys over a four-month period to more than 150 mid-level managers and all of the employees who report directly to them at a Fortune 500 company located in the U.S. and Canada.
“We asked supervisors about the extent to which they faced family-work conflict, and the degree to which they saw their unit as having explicit policies against abusive supervision, which we call ‘situation control,’” Courtright explains. “The direct reports of these managers were then asked to rate how frequently their boss was verbally abusive toward them.”
They then expanded the study to nearly 100 mid- and senior-level managers in organizations spanning 20 different industries across the U.S. This time, the research was done within a two-week window, with daily surveys being sent to the supervisors assessing their level of family-work conflict, ego depletion and abusive supervision.
The researchers controlled for a variety of work and supervisor characteristics previously shown to predict abusive supervision.
“Across the two samples, we found that supervisors who experienced more family-work conflict were more likely to verbally abuse their employees,” Courtright says. “This happened because supervisors who experienced high levels of family-work conflict also experienced higher levels of ego depletion, which then led to more frequent displays of verbal abuse.”
The investigation also revealed that female supervisors were more likely to verbally abuse employees.
“Women have traditionally been expected by society to divert more attention away from work and toward home when family demands and stresses arise,” Courtright explains. “As a result, women end up experiencing higher levels of ego depletion, which in turn, means displaying more abusive supervision.”
He adds that whether or not family-work conflict impacted abusive supervision also depended on situation control. “Supervisors who felt their organization would let them get away with being verbally abusive toward employees were more likely to do so when they faced family-work conflict.”
Work-Life Balance Is For Bosses, Too
The finding that supervisors take out their frustration with home problems on their employees may seem hopeless, Courtright says, because organizations may have very little influence on what happens at home.
“But the point of the study is not to suggest that organizations should try to directly manage family affairs,” Courtright explains. Instead, he says, the implication is that organizations have a vested interest in helping employees — and managers — effectively balance family and work demands.
“Managers are continually told they need to create better work-life balance for their employees—as if they never experience family-work conflict themselves. So, one novel aspect of our study is that it shows how important good family-work dynamics are for managers too, not just their employees.”
Organizations can also help managers better control their aggressive impulses, Courtright notes. “Relaxation and otherwise disengaging temporarily from work have both been shown by past research to help people better exercise self-control and overcome mental exhaustion. Although many organizations would say that fun and relaxation have no place in the daily grind of organizational life, other organizations such as Google explicitly provide these opportunities. There may be something to that approach because it may help create a more positive work environment in which abusive supervision does not occur.”
Courtright’s co-authors are Richard Gardner, University of Nevada-Las Vegas; Troy Smith, Texas A&M; Brian McCormick, Northern Illinois University; and Amy Colbert, University of Iowa.