by Tim Lacy

This February 26 New York Times story (behind a paywall), by Benedict Carey, addresses the topics of humiliation, bullying, and harshness from certain kinds of supervisors. Citing past and present public figures, the article undermines the thinking, or assumption, that harsh bosses get results. They don’t, in any arena.

Citing a synthesis study from March 2017, in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior (authored by Bennett J. Tepper, Lauren Simon, and Hee Man Park), Carey notes that there is “no evidence to support the axiom that tougher bosses get better results.”

Carey begins by noting that research on “leadership style” has gained steam over the past 10-15 years. Despite difficulties in various studies, the overall results indicate that team performance diminishes overall. Here’s a salient excerpt for the NYT piece:

By nature, any study of group dynamics in a real-world setting is plagued by design limitations, including the lack of a control group and the hidden personal grievances of the employees. But the vast majority of findings point to the same conclusion: Bullying bosses tend to undermine their own teams. Morale and company loyalty plunge, tardiness increases and sick days are more frequent.

“Productivity may rise in the short term,” [Rebecca Greenbaum, professor, Rutgers University] said. “But over time the performance of the staff or team deteriorates, and people quit.”

The article goes on to discuss double standards in relation to women leaders, and how leaders emerge from groups or teams. Then Carey returns to traits of abusive supervisors:

Abusive supervisors come in many flavors, including the insecure, the overmatched and the garden-variety sadist who picks on underlings solely for the pleasure of exercising power. But even mini-tantrums and put-downs can be counterproductive, undermining the efforts of a normally civil person and an otherwise effective boss.

Dr. Greenbaum adds that this abusive behavior is often not “premeditated.” It comes, rather, from “a bottom-line mentality” where supervisors will “do anything to achieve their goals.”

Some supervisors, Carey continues, cover their behavior by claiming that they demand “excellence.” This too has been addressed by experts. Indeed, a boss who expresses themselves this way “is no more likely to produce it than the boss who requests or nurtures it, and likely less so, the research suggests. Demanding excellence is often an “after the fact” explanation or simply “a handy excuse,” Carey reports from Bennett Tepper, a researcher at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

The 2017 study noted above, from the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, provides the following antecedents for abusive supervision: 1. social learning (workplace role models, familial role models, organizational norms, country culture); 2. identity threats (including subordinate provocation); and 3. self-regulatory impairment (e.g. displaced aggression). Each receives due attention and explanation.

Among the authors eight summary points, these will be most useful to those who work in a medical learning environment (bolds mine):

– The empirical evidence pertaining to the consequences of abusive supervision belies anecdotal observations (as well as the speculation of some scholars) suggesting that downward hostility can be useful; the preponderance of work to date suggests that abusive supervision undermines individual, unit, and organizational functioning.
– Individuals come to understand the “acceptability” of abusive supervision through exposure to role models at work, family upbringing, organizational norms, and country culture.
– The threats to identity that produce abusive supervision come from subordinate provocation, mistreatment by higher authorities, and personal sensitivity to threat.
– The self-regulation impairment that produces abusive supervision comes from time-based work stress, exceedingly difficult goals, displaying emotions that are inconsistent with felt emotions, behaving ethically, poor sleep quality, and conflict between work and family.

The Works Cited page contains over 140 articles related to the topic.

The research seems clear: “Tougher” and abusive supervisors do not get better results. – TL