How workplaces grow toxic: Simply put, horrible bosses create horrible staff

EAST ANGLIA, England — It really does start at the top, especially at a toxic workplace. Horrible bosses can create horrible staff, according to a new study. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom say that bad behavior by management encourages the same throughout an organization.

In fact, researchers say a “significant” link was discovered between abusive leaders and abusive co-workers. This damaging trend exists where aggressive bosses create a toxic workplace atmosphere rife with insecurity and exhaustion.

Study authors point to a “reciprocal relationship” between bosses and junior staff, where bullied employees feel the only way to get ahead is to abuse others. A toxic atmosphere of heightened competition is created as a result. Inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power were all examples of hostile behavior.

Toxic workplaces, abusive bosses make employees feel less stable at work

For the study, the team surveyed 323 employees across the United Kingdom, Pakistan, China and the United States. They report that 68% of employees who experienced hostile behavior from a senior member of staff then witnessed interpersonal aggression within the general workforce. Horrible bosses were also linked to employees facing emotional exhaustion and job insecurity.

Researchers suggest that mistreatment by colleagues can harm employees’ confidence in their job.

Of the cohort who experienced hostility from a leader, 35 percent say they suffered abusive peer behavior themselves. More than half (52 percent) faced emotional exhaustion, and a massive 77 percent were concerned about job security.

Co-author Dr. Nadeem Khalid, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and strategy at the university, says the damage done to employees by bullish bosses is clear and can persist throughout the workplace. He argues it wasn’t an effective strategy either, noting previous studies show hostility discourages commitment from staff.

“It’s clear from our study that hostile behavior at the top of a workplace is not only likely to be damaging to individuals in terms of their emotional exhaustion and job security, it is also likely to encourage other employees to act in unethical ways, creating a toxic environment across the entire organization,” Khalid explains in a statement. “This mirroring of negative behavior may have its roots in the reciprocal relationship between leaders and employees. An employee who is mistreated may feel the only way to get ahead in their job is to treat others as they have been treated themselves – this may not always be intentional but it results in a race to the bottom among employees and damages job security and leads to stress and exhaustion.

“Previous studies have shown that abusive behavior from leaders is associated with a lack of commitment from employees, and has a negative effect on emotional wellbeing,” Khalid adds. “Our study suggests that the situation could be exacerbated by the negative behavior of general workers as well as the leader.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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