The aim of this essay is to analyze extant research on
abusive supervision from various researchers and practitioners. With reference
to and through the application of relevant theories and perspectives of various
researchers and practitioners, the cause and consequences of abusive supervision
will be explained and looked in depth. Thereafter, the different perspectives on
ways to deal with abusive supervision as a victim, observer and HR manager will
be discussed. As a conclusion to this report, practical examples of preventive
measures which organizations can implement as best practices, will be provided.
Tepper, (2000, p.178), defined abusive supervision as “subordinates’
perceptions of the extent to which leaders engage in the sustained display of
hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” Abusive
supervision, a form of destructive leadership behavior, affects 13.6% of workers
in the U.S. (Schat, Frone and Kelloway,
2006) and is estimated to cost U.S. organizations $23.8b annually (in lower-productivity,
absenteeism, turnover and healthcare costs) (Tepper, Duffy, Henle and Lamber, 2006), which suggests that it has tangible
negative consequences for both the victims and the organizations.
Causes of abusive supervision.
In light of this analysis, Martinko et. al. (2013) constructive revision of Tepper (2007) emergent model of abusive
supervision (Figure 1), will be elaborated
Figure 1: A constructive
revision of the Tepper (2007) model (Martinko et. al., 2013).
Abusive supervision literature suggests that organization-level, supervisor-level, and employee-level
factors contribute to perceptions of abusive supervision and influences
employees’ perceptions and reactions to abusive supervision (Kedharnath, 2014). There is also general
consensus in literature that abusive supervision results from the interaction
of several organization-level and individual-level factors, as opposed to
resulting only from isolated acts of aggression performed by malicious
supervisors (Felps, Mitchell and Byington,
To accomplish objectives, such as to maintain a standard
of high-performance or to indicate that mistakes will not be condoned, abusive
supervisors may mistreat their subordinates (Baron and Richardson, 1994; Bushman and Anderson, 2001). Martinko, Harvey, Sikora and Douglas (2011),
found that recent researches on employee-level factors indicate that subordinates’
hostile attribution styles and with whom they shared low-quality
leader-member-exchange relationships with (Harris
et. al., 2011), positively predicted reports of abusive supervision.
Tepper et al. (2011), research found that supervisors who had “deep-level dissimilarity” with subordinates
were likely to engage in conflicts and abusive behaviors with these subordinates.
Perceived abused from supervisor
According to the trickle-down
model developed by Masterson (2001), behaviors
and perceptions can be passed down along the organizational hierarchy from
supervisors to subordinates. Lower-level managers who experienced abusive
supervision from high-level managers, became more abusive (Mawritz et al., 2012). In reaction to abusive supervision, even
when employees were not direct targets of the abuse, they became more abusive
towards other employees (Harris, Harvey, Harris,
and Cast, 2013).
iv. Injustice perceptions
Supervisors who experienced psychological contract breach
were found to be more abusive towards their subordinates (Hoobler and Brass, 2006), and the effects were stronger among supervisors with hostile attribution
bias. This is supported by Aryee, Chen, Sun and Debrah (2007) research, that states supervisors
whom had experienced interactional injustice (Bies and Moag, 1986) tend to be abusive toward subordinates. Other
researchers suggest that the organizational context can also foster
supervisors’ abusive behaviors toward employees (Aryee, Chen, Sun and Debrah, 2007).
v. Family History/Stress
Supervisors with a history of family undermining were
prone to abusive behaviors (Kiewitz et
al., 2012), and this was primarily
true for supervisors who reported low self-control. According to Burton, Hoobler
and Scheuer (2012), supervisors experiencing high levels of stress were
more likely to abuse their subordinates, than others.
of abusive supervision.
Several studies have demonstrated that abusive
supervision has negative and costly individual-level
and organization-level consequences (Kedharnath, 2014).
Carlson et. al. (2011), found that “abusive supervision has a positive
relationship with work-family conflict and relationship tension.” With the
perspective of justice theory, Tepper proved
that abusive supervision had destructive effect on employees’ family life, such
as the relationship tension, lower family functioning and work-family conflict (Hoobler and Brass, 2006) and constant
negative affect at home.
Research found that targets of supervisory hostility not
only exhibit increased interpersonally and organizationally harmful behavior, but
experience diminished organizational commitment and job satisfaction (Martinko, Harvey, Brees, and Mackey, 2013;
Abusive supervision triggers retaliatory and
counterproductive behaviors in organizations (Jones, 2009; Mitchell and Ambrose, 2007). Wang et. al. (2012), found that abusive supervision is positively
related to workplace deviance which violates organizational norms, and
negatively impacts organizations financially or psychologically (Robinson and Greenberg, 1998).
Based on cost-benefit considerations, fear is likely to
intensify the desire for abused employees to engage in ‘defensive silence’ (avoidance
behavior) (Gundlach, Douglas, and Martinko,
2003). Due to task interdependence, subordinates may remain silent in fear of
further damaging the relationship with a powerful authority
whom they depend (Beasley and Rayner, 1997; Lutgen- Sandvik, 2003) on for resources to meet their basic needs.
Park et. al., (2016) research supports the view that supervisor abusiveness
depletes subordinates’ resources (Ursin and Eriksen 2004), resulting in detrimental
psychological consequences. Hence, subordinates remain silent as a coping mechanism (Xu et
al., 2015). Subordinates also suffer from emotional exhaustion (Tepper,
2000), since there is not enough resources and leadership support
to handle stress. Perspectives from social interactionist (Tedeschi, 2001), indicate that abused employees may become weak and
ineffectual which can lead to less favorable
attitudes towards the job/organization (Tepper,
2000) and adverse psychological effects i.e. negative self-esteem, anxiety,
confusion, depression and suicide (Cortina
et al., 2001; Davenport et al., 2002; Estes and Wang, 2008; Pearson and Porath,
According to Harris,
Kacmar and Zivnuska, (2007), abusive supervision is negatively related to
employee performance. Park et. al., (2016), research which
examines the underlying mechanism of silence (Xu et al. 2015), supports the findings of Morrison (2014). Abused subordinates’ silence can considerably
affect organizations and its employees; i.e. performance may suffer when suggestions
and information regarding work-related problems or new ideas to improve the
functionality of work processes (Milliken
et al. 2003) are withheld, which
can directly/indirectly impact the organization’s bottom line.