One Scary Boss Can Spook the Whole Office

Scary BossCoping with an abusive boss can have major impacts on employee well-being, and research has even shown that a bad boss can make people sick, leading to increased rates of heart attack, high blood pressure, anxiety, and chronic stress among employees.

But a scary boss doesn’t just impact his or her immediate subordinates – new research from a team of psychological scientists led by Mary Bardes Mawritz of Drexel University shows that an abusive boss’s bad behavior can trickle down throughout the entire office.

The researchers hypothesized that when managers at the top of an organization’s hierarchy act out they set a norm for tolerating abusive behavior that is then followed by the supervisors under them, eventually leading to mistreatment of employees throughout the organization.

“If supervisors see their higher level managers engaging in abusive supervision, they may employ similar behavior but directed toward their own employees,” Mawritz and colleagues write in the journal Personnel Psychology. “Therefore, we first propose abused supervisors may become abusers themselves—but of those they supervise, that is, their own employees.”

The team’s data came from surveys given to employees and supervisors from a wide range of organizations and industries, including technology, government, insurance, finance, food service, retail, manufacturing, and healthcare.

For the analysis, the researchers looked at responses from work groups of three or more employees from the same department in the same organization and also responses from their immediate supervisor. All together, the analyses included data from 288 work groups made up of 1,423 employee responses and 295 supervisor responses.

Supervisors were given surveys asking how often their employees engaged in abusive behavior towards each other at work (interpersonal deviance) and abusive managerial behavior from supervisors one level above them.

Non-managerial employees rated their agreement with survey items about abusive behavior from supervisors (e.g., “My supervisor puts me down in front of others”) and hostile climate in the work group (e.g., “People in my work group often talk about each other behind their backs”).

As predicted, abusive manager behavior at the top of an organization was positively associated with abusive behavior among supervisors one level down, which was positively associated with antagonistic behavior amongst employees. This suggests that abusive behavior at higher levels in an organization may be emulated by those at lower levels.

The study also found evidence that when the office climate is generally hostile, people working together feel antagonistic and suspicious of each other, and the trickle-down effect of abusive supervision is even stronger.

Conversely, the researchers found that a work climate with low hostility helped to buffer against these trickle-down effects. The researchers suggest that one possible explanation is that when a supervisor is abusive to someone in a low hostility climate, their colleagues are likely to support them rather than act out antagonistically.

“Given the powerful effect of abusive supervisor behavior, it is intriguing that we can still find an aspect of the workgroup climate that can strengthen (or even reverse) the influence of abusive supervision,” writes Mawritz and colleagues.

Many organizations think that if they can just identify and get rid of the “bad apple,” all will be well again. However, Mawritz and colleagues argue that while these bad apples should be identified and removed, their study suggests that the effects of abusive supervision can extend far beyond the perpetrator. Organizations trying to combat negative behaviors “may do well to take a more active role in reducing situational factors that may make the trickle down of abuse more likely,” The researchers conclude.



Mawritz, M. B., Mayer, D. M., Hoobler, J. M., Wayne, S. J., Marinova, S. V. (2012). A Trickle-Down Model of Abusive Supervision. Personnel Psychology, 65(2), 325–357. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2012.01246.x

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