work argument

Boss yelling at employees (Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — We’ve all had that boss – the one who yells, belittles, or makes unreasonable demands. But how we interpret their behavior can vary widely. Is this person an abusive tyrant, or are they just pushing us to be our best? New research from The Ohio State University sheds light on how we label difficult leaders and why it matters.

The study, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, explores the fascinating psychology behind how employees categorize bosses who engage in what researchers call “abusive supervision.” This term refers to hostile behaviors like ridiculing employees, giving the silent treatment, or taking credit for others’ work.

Conventional wisdom suggests that experiencing such behavior would lead employees to view their boss as abusive. However, the researchers found it’s not always so straightforward. In fact, a key factor influencing how we label a difficult boss is their performance.

When a leader who exhibits abusive behaviors is also high-performing – think of famously harsh but successful leaders like Steve Jobs – employees are less likely to label them as abusive. Instead, they may see the boss as employing “tough love” – being stern but ultimately well-meaning.

Woman getting yelled at by boss at work
People who feel their bosses are abusive as opposed to showing “tough love” were more likely to exhibit hostile behavior themselves. (© fizkes – stock.adobe.com)

This distinction is crucial because how we label our boss affects how we respond to them. Employees who view their leader as abusive are more likely to retaliate with hostile behaviors of their own, like ignoring the boss’s requests or badmouthing them to others. On the flip hand, those who see their boss as practicing tough love may actually view the experience as beneficial for their career development.

To understand this phenomenon, the researchers drew on two psychological concepts: leader categorization theory and labeling theory. Leader categorization theory explains how we form expectations about leaders based on our experiences and cultural norms. When we encounter a leader, we try to match their behavior to our existing mental categories of what leaders should be like.

Labeling theory, meanwhile, suggests that the labels we apply to others influence how we interact with them. If we label someone as “abusive,” we’re more likely to respond negatively. If we label them as “tough but fair,” we might be more tolerant of their behavior.

The study found that a leader’s performance acts as a powerful moderating factor in this labeling process. High performance can override the negative categorization that would typically result from abusive behaviors. In essence, success can make us more forgiving of a leader’s harsh methods.

This research has important implications for both employees and organizations. For employees, it highlights the need to be aware of how a boss’s performance might be coloring our perception of their behavior. Just because a leader is successful doesn’t mean their abusive actions are justified or beneficial.

Boss or manager having meeting with employee in the office
High-performing bosses who demonstrate “tough love” are generally viewed as being more difficult, but with good intent. (Photo by Zivica Kerkez on Shutterstock)

“These bosses may treat employees harshly, but presumably their intent is to help their followers realize their potential – that’s the ‘tough love’ part,” says study co-author Bennett Tepper, a professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University, in a media release. “And if the leaders have high performance, that suggests they are successful at bringing out the skills of their followers.”

For organizations, the study underscores the complexity of managing abusive supervision. While it might be tempting to overlook the bad behavior of high-performing leaders, doing so could lead to a toxic work environment and ultimately harm the organization.

The researchers also found that employees who labeled their boss as practicing “tough love” reported more positive career expectations. However, they caution that this doesn’t necessarily mean tough love leadership is actually beneficial. It may simply reflect employees’ optimistic beliefs about working under a demanding but successful leader.

This study sheds new light on the age-old debate about whether the ends justify the means in leadership. While a harsh leadership style might seem effective in the short term, especially when paired with high performance, the long-term costs to employee well-being and organizational culture could be significant.

As we navigate our professional lives, it’s worth reflecting on how we categorize and respond to difficult leaders. Are we too quick to excuse bad behavior because of good results? Or are we missing out on valuable tough love that could help us grow? By understanding the psychology behind these perceptions, we can make more informed judgments about the leaders in our lives.

Methodology

The researchers, led by R.B. Lount Jr., conducted two main studies: a field survey and a laboratory experiment.

In the field survey, 576 full-time employees from various sectors in the U.S. participated in a three-wave survey conducted over several weeks. The participants, who all had supervisors, provided data on their experiences with abusive supervision, the performance of their leaders, and their perceptions of these leaders. The survey measured abusive supervision using a well-established 15-item scale and assessed leader performance with a four-item scale.

The laboratory experiment involved 168 participants who were exposed to manipulated conditions of leader performance and abusive supervision. The participants received messages from their leaders that were either abusive or neutral, and they then rated the perceived abusiveness and performance of these leaders. This controlled setting allowed the researchers to test the causal relationships between abusive supervision, leader performance, and the resulting labels.

The Results: Abuser or Tough Love?

The results from both studies converged on a fascinating point: leader performance significantly moderates the relationship between abusive supervision and the labels assigned to leaders.

In the field survey, when leaders performed well, abusive supervision was less likely to lead to the “abuser” label and more likely to result in the “tough love” label. Conversely, when leader performance was low, abusive supervision more readily resulted in the “abuser” label.

The lab experiment supported these findings. Participants were less likely to perceive high-performing leaders as abusers and more likely to see them as “tough love” bosses, even when these leaders engaged in abusive supervision. This suggests that high performance can mitigate the negative perceptions typically associated with abusive behavior.

“We found that in a very short amount of time, you could quickly abate abusive labeling of a boss with high performance,” Lount says.

“Just finding out your team did better because of your leader’s judgment really dampened the willingness to label that person as abusive – even though your leader made the exact same statements as the other leaders who were called abusive after a below-average performance.”

Study Limitations

While the findings are compelling, the study has some limitations. For instance, the lab experiment’s artificial setting might not fully capture the complexities of real-world workplace dynamics. Additionally, the field survey relied on self-reported data, which can be biased.

Another limitation is that the study focused primarily on leader performance as the moderating factor. Other traits, such as charisma or intelligence, might also influence how abusive supervision is perceived. Future research could explore these additional factors to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon.

Discussion & Takeaways

So, what do these findings mean for workplaces and leadership? The study highlights the power of perception in leadership. How employees view their leaders can significantly impact their reactions to supervision styles. A high-performing leader might get away with behaviors that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable simply because their performance casts them in a more favorable light.

For organizations, these findings suggest that investing in leadership training that boosts performance could help mitigate some of the negative impacts of harsh supervisory styles. However, this is not to say that abusive supervision should be condoned. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of performance and competence in leadership roles.

“The bosses who get away with abusive behavior may be those who somehow find a way to get high performance despite their behavior,” Tepper concludes.

“Their high performance insulates them from the consequences because even their employees say he’s just a ‘tough love’ kind of boss.”

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