Abusive Managers aim their abuse at those who are least likely to defend themselves.
by Liane Davey
Managers aim their abuse at those who are least likely to defend themselves. That is the finding of a disturbing new study by Pedro Neves (published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology), which looked at 193 supervisor/employee pairings in a variety of different industries.
I found the results troubling, but sadly they resonated based on my experience as an executive team advisor in dozens of organizations.
Here is a summary of Neves’ findings.
Employees with poor core-self evaluations (an aggregate measure related to self-esteem and sense of control) and poor coworker support were more likely to experience aggressive behavior from their supervisor (belittling, blaming, etc.). That is, the weakest employees receive the brunt of a bad manager’s abuse.
The propensity to target aggression at the people least likely to retaliate was exacerbated when the supervisor was in a stressful or threatening situation (in this case post-downsizing). Supervisors under stress did not become universally more aggressive, just more aggressive toward the weakest members of their teams.
Employees with low core self-evaluations did not respond to the abuse directly. Instead, they decreased their effort on their job duties and reduced their discretionary effort on other tasks that support the team or the organization.
In these findings, I immediately recognized a pattern of team dysfunction that I described in my bookYou First and that I wrote about in a previous post for HBR. This toxic dynamic is created and worsened by three distinct roles: the wicked manager who is preying upon the weak, the wounded victim who fails to defend him- or herself, and the witnesses who do nothing to interrupt the unhealthy interaction. Anyone playing any of these roles can change the team by changing their behavior.
If You Are the Manager
First, if you are a manager, hold up a mirror and ask yourself whether you play into this destructive dynamic. If you are honest with yourself, do you take out your frustrations on the person on your team who is least likely to fight back? Is there someone on your team caught in a vicious cycle where his victim mentality has become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Just making yourself aware of this will start to change it for the better. Then, decide what to do. Is there is a constructive way to address the things that are frustrating you so that you don’t pass your emotion on to the team? Even being aware that your frustrations come from outside your team will help. If you have angst that comes from uncertainty about your own situation, don’t take it out on your subordinates, try to address it directly by asking for clarity from your manager. If you’re angry about a decision from above, find an appropriate outlet to express your concerns so they don’t get projected onto the team.
Next, make a decision about the weak team member. There is no point having a helpless person on your team. If it’s not worth the investment to turn his behavior around, find another home for him or exit him from the organization. If the person has a unique skillset or important relationships with customers, it might be worth the investment to help them succeed. Invest in building the person’s confidence and increasing his credibility with his teammates.
Your negative words and body language toward the weak team member have demonstrated to his coworkers that they don’t need to respect or support him. If you pay attention to your own behavior, you’ll probably notice that you don’t make much eye contact with him and that your body is usually aimed away. Start shifting those subtle cues while you also focus on being inviting and open in how you interact with him.
If You Are the Victim
If you’re the victim of the abusive manager, stand up for yourself. Your attempts to grin and bear it without pushing back are inviting more aggression. First, you need to realize that your boss’ behavior is likely being triggered by stress she is under (i.e., it’s about something other than you). When you present an easy target, she gets a chance to let off some steam at your expense.
Let your manager know that you will not be a punching bag anymore. Say something strong and respectful such as “I think we can resolve this without raising voices,” or “My report had each of the pieces that we discussed when we met on Tuesday.” Where it makes sense, enlist the support of your coworkers “Brad, could you weigh in on this, we talked through this approach.”
Finally, don’t get even by reducing your efforts on the job. It may feel unfair and you may feel disengaged, but the last thing you want to do is give your manager a valid basis for her treatment of you. Every time you feel the desire to switch off your computer a little early, channel that into a productive conversation or an important project.
If You Are the Witness
If you observe this kind of destructive relationship between your boss and one of your teammates, get off the sidelines and do something. Watching silently as a coworker is abused is no better than standing idle as a kid is bullied on a playground. Remember, the research showed that the supervisor abuse was much more likely to be targeted at people who didn’t have the support of their coworkers.
Reach out to your teammate and provide support, advice, and coaching. If there are things you believe she can do to come across as more confident, pass along your ideas. In meetings, if you see abusive behavior, try to defuse it. For example, if someone continually interrupts her, ask that people hear her out. You might try something like: “I’d like to hear what Sally has to say.” If the boss criticizes her, be vocal when you disagree. Lending some of your confidence and credibility might be the boost she needs to reclaim some respect from the team and the boss.
Any one person can disrupt an unhealthy dynamic by behaving in a new way. It takes the willingness to see and acknowledge the bad behavior and the courage to do something differently. It’s worth it.