Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces
By Manuela Priesemuth, Harvard Business Review, June 19, 2020
Jun 20, 2020 - 9:49:39 AM
Millions of people face abusive supervisors and bullies at work. These employees are targets of ridicule, threats, or demeaning comments by their manager on a daily basis, which results in decreased satisfaction, productivity, and commitment to the job as well as the organization at large.
While direct interactions with “bad bosses” can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse. Because employees look to and learn from managers, they come to understand that this type of interpersonal mistreatment is acceptable behavior in the company. In essence, employees start to think that “this is how it’s done around here,” and this belief manifests itself in a toxic environment that tolerates abusive acts. More so, studies have even shown that employees who experience abuse from a supervisor are also more inclined to “pass on” this type of treatment in a ripple effect.
As such, the outcomes of destructive workplaces are devastating, harming work teams and individuals alike. For example, in a multi-study effort, my colleagues and I discovered that abusive climates negatively impact a work group’s collective efficacy, which indicates that the team has lost its confidence to adequately perform a given task. Furthermore, abusive work environments destroy important bonds between team members, which further results in reduced performance and citizenship behaviors, meaning that employees are less likely to help and support each other. Toxic workplaces also impair the lives of individuals beyond the work realm. Employees report feeling emotionally drained, experience lower well-being, and even increased conflict at home (i.e., work-family conflict).
Given the harmful consequences of abusive bosses, the question is what can be done to change this behavior. My latest research sought to provide answers by asking both supervisors and employees about their willingness to address abusive supervision at work.
First, my colleague, Bailey Bigelow, and I wanted to understand what makes abusive bosses change their behavior. To do so, we asked supervisors to reflect upon a time in which they directed demeaning comments and rude behavior towards subordinates. We then asked them to write about this experience with as much detail as possible. After recalling and describing the abusive incidents, supervisors were instructed to rate how they felt and acted in the time after exerting abuse. We also asked whether they stopped the abusive behavior in the end.
What we found was that supervisors experience a loss in social worth after abusing subordinates, which means that they generally feel less valued and appreciated at work. This reduced sense of worth, in turn, seemed to hurt managers’ performance behaviors, as employees increasingly reported that their supervisors were unable to complete assigned work duties or tasks that were expected of them.
But, at the same time, we also found that some managers (those who did not have psychopathic tendencies) ended up halting mistreatment towards employees. Thus, abusive bosses significantly improved their bad behavior when they cared about their level of social worth and the general well-being of employees. In contrast, psychopath bosses (up to 10% of managers across companies) who are cold, callous, cynical, and lack remorse appear indifferent to social repercussions and social welfare, which makes them less likely to stop abusing subordinates.
Beyond understanding when supervisors change abusive conduct on their own, I was also curious about the conditions under which witnesses to supervisor mistreatment would aid a victimized colleague. Thus, in another research study, my coauthor Marshall Schminke and I used time-lagged, multi-source survey data to understand when employees stand up for an abused coworker.
We found that organizational norms were essential in guiding observers to address the wrongdoing. When employees felt that their organization overall valued and emphasized fairness (e.g., people perceived promotion, compensation, or bonus structures to be fair), observers were much more likely to help a victimized colleague. In fact, these norms seem to empower bystanders to act, because they start to believe in their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others (a concept known as “ethical efficacy”). It is this newly gained confidence that drives them to speak up.
Together, the findings from my two latest studies suggest that we can structure work environments in a way that helps combat abuse.
First, companies should increase awareness and educate managers about all costs associated with abusive conduct. By emphasizing the detrimental consequences of abusive behavior right at the outset of one’s career during company orientation, as well as through continuous training programs, managers would come to understand that negative actions not only harm others, but also themselves. Consequently, many bosses might refrain from abusive actions out of pure self-interest.
Second, companies can incorporate or strengthen anonymous feedback channels where employees can voice their concerns and report abusive experiences without fear of retribution. Peer managers, superiors, or HR could deliver the relevant feedback to managers, making it clear that the organization does not tolerate this kind of behavior. Knowing that others disapprove — or even worse, that they don’t value or appreciate the supervisor— may lead this perpetrator to self-correct abusive behavior.
Third, organizations need to uphold and enforce fair and ethical norms in all aspects of company life, because employees reflect upon these values before deciding whether to stand up to abuse or not. If they sense that fair and respectful treatment is commonly valued and supported in the company, employees might be more confident to confront an abuser and protect someone who has been mistreated.
In all, by raising awareness about the costs for perpetrators and by constantly communicating fair values and norms that empower employees to speak up, we might be able to say that “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces.”
Source: Ocnus.net 2020