If your boss has it in for you, there’s a good chance that your colleagues are feeling it, too – and reacting to the negative energy in turn. A new study suggests that bullying bosses affect not just the victim of their angst, but the victim’s coworkers as well, making life miserable for an entire group of colleagues. This phenomenon, which the authors dub “second hand” bullying or “vicarious abusive supervision,” may also have an unintended impact on the company as well, since it can seriously affect employees’ morale and opinion of the company as a whole.
The authors were interested in exploring what they call this “dark side of leadership.” The phenomenon known as abusive supervision (aka, having a bully boss) is one of the more dysfunctional types of leadership, they point out, but it’s one that’s gaining more attention as a very real problem in the workplace. Office bullying is defined as “subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” And this type of psychological bullying often goes on much longer than physical abuse, since it’s less obvious but can be more insidious, leaving “long-lasting ‘scars.’”
But as mentioned, abusive supervision doesn’t just affect the person at whom it’s directed – it can affect an entire office. Its presence can extend to others “second hand,” as they hear about it or witness it occurring in coworkers and friends. And if it spreads to other people, it may be likely to affect employees’ overall perception of the company they work for – and, in true domino effect, this can affect the productivity of the company itself. In other words, it’s not something to be taken lightly from a social or a business perspective.
To these ends, the authors wanted to measure the effects of abusive supervision and vicarious abusive supervision on employees’ frustration, the likelihood of coworker abuse, and perceived organizational support (POS), which is how supportive employees perceive their company to be.
The researchers polled 233 people from various fields, including bankers, state government employees, financial analysts, lawyers, teachers, and electricians. They had them answer questions about their direct experience of abusive supervision (e.g., “My supervisor makes negative comments about me to others”) and vicarious abusive supervision (e.g., “I have heard about or witnessed supervisors at work making negative comments about one or more of those below them to others.”). Other examples of vicarious abusive supervision are hearing of rumors of abusive behaviors and reading about them in emails.
It turned out that both abusive and vicariously abusive supervision had similar impacts on employees, with both forms leading to more job frustration, a greater likelihood of coworkers abusing one another, and a greater lack of confidence in the company as a whole. “When vicarious abusive supervision is present,” the authors write, “employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly.”
The authors recommend that people in management positions take a good look at the effects of their management styles, making a point to learn about abusive supervision as well as the vicarious variety. “Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse.” They next hope to look at the effects of both types of abusive management on people in other lines of work, and within specific companies.