Toxic bosses can ruin a worker’s psyche and their job performance

HOBOKEN, N.J. — “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” An all-caps email from a disgruntled boss can be jarring to an employee’s psyche as they try to do their job. Now, a new study is revealing how abusive leadership really can take a toll on a worker’s performance.

Researchers from the Stevens Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois Chicago are shedding light on the cognitive factors that explain how disparaging bosses can degrade employee performance and why some workers are more vulnerable to its negative impact than others.

“Thankfully, abusive supervision isn’t too common, but when it happens it leaves employees far less likely to take the initiative and work to improve business practices,” says study author Howie Xu, an assistant professor of management at Stevens, in a university release. “We wanted to understand the cognitive factors behind that effect — and ask how companies can shield their employees from the negative impact of bad bosses.”

To investigate these cognitive factors, researchers surveyed employees and supervisors from 42 South Korean companies and hundreds of U.S. students. The focus was on understanding how abusive supervision affects “taking-charge” behavior by employees, with participants ranked based on whether they actively seek opportunities for promotion and advancement or prioritize safety and job security.

Mean, angry, abusive boss
(© ArtFamily

Researchers initially theorized that both the drive to obtain rewards (such as promotions and bonuses) and the drive to avoid punishments (like job security threats) would shape employees’ responses to abusive bosses. However, the study yielded startling results.

Contrary to their expectations, researchers found that employees who prioritize career advancement are significantly more affected by abusive leadership. In contrast, employees who prioritize job security remain just as likely to take charge even after experiencing abusive supervision.

“That’s a very surprising finding,” notes Xu. “We found clear evidence that the signal from abusive leadership is much more salient to employees who care about advancement than it is to employees who care about security.”

One possible explanation for this difference is that ambitious employees may perceive an abusive boss as having direct control over their chances of receiving bonuses or opportunities for promotion. On the other hand, firing decisions often involve HR teams or higher-level managers, reducing the perception of a direct threat from a bad boss.

This finding suggests that organizations aiming to mitigate the impact of bad leadership should focus on empowering employees and making them feel valued, rather than solely assuring them of job security.

“If a leader slips into abusive behavior, our research suggests that they should not only apologize, but also work to reassure employees of their value to the organization,” says Xu.

The study found that the variation in employee responses to abusive supervision was consistent across both South Korean and U.S. populations. Despite cultural differences, employees in both countries responded similarly to abusive bosses, suggesting that this trait may be a universal phenomenon that transcends cultural boundaries.

The study is published in the journal Group & Organization Management.

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Lea la versión en español en Los jefes tóxicos pueden arruinar la psicología de un trabajador y su desempeño laboral.

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