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Tit-For-Tat: The interplay of abusive supervisors and misbehaving subordinates

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Much has been written about how abusive supervision can lead to organisational deviance, or misbehaviour, among subordinates. But as Huiwen Lian, D. Lance Ferris, Rachel Morrison and Douglas J Brown report, these reports typically end with a short note that the opposite may also be true. So which is it? The supervisor or the subordinate? The authors produce a fresh study that offers a surprising answer.

First, they point out that the theories related to abusive supervision and organisational deviance do not offer any clues – in victimisation theory, for example, either the supervisor or the subordinate could be said to be responding as the victim. In displaced aggression theory, either could be transferring their hostilities to safer targets. In self-regulation failure theory, either could be devoting personal resources to what they perceive as a threat so they have little left to regulate deviant impulses. And so on.

Given the lack of direction there, the authors decided to construct empirical tests that could tease out the flow of action and reaction, the timing, and other factors that might provide a clearer indication of just what is going on.

They conducted two surveys of people who had participated in previous investigations related to abusive supervision and compared the new with the old information. In one survey they returned to the participants 20 months after the first encounter, in the second survey six months after. The aim with this cross-lagged approach was to look at the direction of interactions and how effects played out over time.

The first survey offered the surprising result. “We found support for the proposition that subordinate organisational deviance predicts abusive supervision, but not the other way around,” they said. In other words, it seems that abusive supervision is prompted by subordinate behaviour.

This finding was in contrast with the majority of other research on the topic, which prompted the second survey. Here, in addition to shortening the follow-up time to six months, the authors also introduced measures related to self-control, including capacity and motivation (with the latter represented by the intention to quit the organisation).

This time around the effects moved in both directions – abusive supervision had a significant lagged effect on organisational deviance, and organisational deviance on abusive supervision. But the former was more significant when the subordinate had low capacity of self-control and high motivation to quit. In fact, the authors speculated that one of the reason why abusive supervision seemed to be less an instigator in the 20-month study may have been that some affected employees had quit or had learned to control their deviant responses even when abusive supervision continued.

“Our studies lend support to the perspective that subordinate deviance can trigger abusive supervisory behaviours, in contrast to mainstream research which assumes supervisors’ abusive actions cause subordinates to react with deviance. Although this assumption often leads us to blame supervisors for abusing their power, our findings suggest supervisors use abusive behaviours in reaction to deviant subordinate behaviours, perhaps to correct them,” they said.

The implications for managers are pretty straightforward. They should aim to reduce subordinate organisational deviance through clear policies, awareness raising and interventions. Supervisors should also be educated about the ineffectiveness of abusive behaviours in eliminating subordinate deviance.

“Our findings suggest abusive supervision only triggers more subordinate deviance in the short term. In the long term, although some subordinates may eventually stop engaging in deviance, others, especially those with alternative job options, may choose to leave the organisation,” they said.

They added that managers should also try to address self-control capacity in both supervisors and subordinates, for instance by screening out those with low capacity or helping them to develop better self control.

This article is republished with permission from HKUST Business School.

Lian Huiwen

Lian Huiwen is Assistant Professor of the Management Department at the HKUST Business School

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