December 22, 2002

Abusive Supervisors May Get Employees to Meet Deadlines at the Expense of Their Company's "Bottom Line"

Abused subordinates may seek revenge by not helping co-workers and by speaking unfavorably about the organization to outsiders, study finds

WASHINGTON - Frustration and stress resulting from the intense competition and ever-changing deadlines of today's business world may cause some supervisors to become abusive to their employees. While yelling at and using other non-physical intimidation toward subordinates may motivate employees to get their work done on time, the company may suffer financially in the long run, according to a study in the December issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The study found that supervisors who were abusive to subordinates by engaging in sustained displays of hostile verbal or non verbal abuse (including yelling or screaming at someone for disagreeing, using derogatory names, aggressive eye contact, intimidating by use of threats of job loss or humiliating someone in front of others) had employees who engaged in fewer discretionary actions that promote organizational effectiveness, such as helping coworkers, not complaining about trivial problems and speaking approvingly about the organization to outsiders.

Study authors Kelly L. Zellars, Ph.D., and Bennett J. Tepper, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Michelle K. Duffy, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky, administered two surveys to 373 Air National Guard members and their military supervisors. The first survey was distributed to rank-and-file guard members and asked questions dealing with abusive supervision, discretionary work-related issues and procedural justice. The second survey was distributed to guard leaders who had supervisory responsibilities and contained questions about subordinates' organizational behaviors.

Results of the study suggest that subordinates of abusive supervisors perform fewer discretionary actions that promote organizational effectiveness than their nonabused counterparts and the effect is more pronounced among subordinates who define these behaviors as extra-role behavior (not part of the requirements of the job). This enables the abused subordinate to achieve what is referred to as a low-intensity type of revenge, according to the study.

The findings suggest that there are some abused subordinates who continue to perform the discretionary actions because they believe such behavior is a requirement of the job. "These employees may feel that, regardless of their supervisor's behavior, they are normatively obligated to perform this organizational citizenship behavior or that refusing to be a team player, to help coworkers, or to exhibit positive attitudes reflects on their ability to do the job and reduces their chances of receiving valued rewards," said the researchers.

Although the sample used for the study involved Air National Guard members, the authors say the findings have implications for non-military work settings. "A number of studies have suggested that employee citizenship behaviors benefit organizations in terms of sales, performance quality and quantity, and operating efficiency. Our data provide further motivation for organizations to be concerned about allowing abusive supervision to go unchecked. Although abusive behavior may intimidate subordinates into meeting deadlines, it may also reduce subordinate's organizational citizenship, thereby hurting the bottom line," say the authors.

Article: "Abusive Supervision and Subordinates' Organizational Citizenship Behavior," Kelly L. Zellars and Bennett J. Tepper, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Michelle K. Duffy, University of Kentucky; Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 87, No. 6.

Kelly Zellars, Ph.D., can be reached by e-mail: Kelly Zellars.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.