What happens when your company has a bad manager?
And not just bad as in inept—but one who is hostile, demeaning and generally disrespectful to subordinates.
Whether you’re the employee on the receiving end of abusive behavior or a leader trying to help your company reduce its toxicity, the road to recovery can be long, fraught and challenging.
But in moments of uncertainty, employers and organizations can turn to research that articulates nuanced considerations. Crystal Harold and Ryan Vogel, associate professors in the Department of Management, research the consequences of bad behavior in organizations. Their discoveries can offer frameworks for navigating scenarios where positive outcomes are not always easy to envision.
In their studies, the researchers looked at one variable—gender—in two different ways. While Vogel researched the impact of abusive supervision on expectant working mothers, Harold assessed what happens when a bad boss is female, and how their evaluations are impacted compared to their male counterparts.
Gender’s impacts on employee assessments
Crystal Harold wondered how existing gender biases impact the ways in which abusive supervisors are held accountable for their actions. What was it about women’s behavior that violates employees’ expectations to a greater degree than for male leaders?
“Historically, people have thought of managers as male. It was difficult for women even to advance to leadership positions because it was seen as incongruent with the expectations for how women were supposed to be,” says Harold. “You now see women in prominent positions and some of the stigma against women in leadership positions may be fading. But even when women reach positions of leadership, there are still expectations for how they’re supposed to behave that are very gendered.”
In a recently published paper titled “Evaluations of abusive supervisors: The moderating role of the abuser’s gender,” Harold and her co-authors look at how abusive leaders' gender affected follower evaluations of their effectiveness and attributions made for who was to blame for the abusive behavior.
"This study offers insight into the role of gender in affecting how followers respond to abusive supervision,” Harold says. The research underscores the idea that biases about gender negatively impact how employees assess their leaders, particularly women in leadership positions.
By evaluating participants’ responses to hypothetical transgressions in one study and actual employees’ reactions to being on the receiving end of abusive supervision in a second study, the researchers found that abusive supervision is not just potentially harmful to its victims, but even to the abusive supervisor. Harold and her team probed further into the stereotypes that inform how both parties perceive and evaluate leadership in their companies.
“Women are penalized to a greater degree than men in the form of lower effectiveness ratings,” Harold says. “While abusive supervision is unequivocally destructive and abusive supervisors should be dealt with, it is problematic that female leaders may be more harshly penalized than their male counterparts for exhibiting the same abusive behaviors.”
Working mothers, vicarious abuse and turnover in organizations
In his recent research, Ryan Vogel steps away from looking directly at abusive supervisors in favor of their female employees, who represent an especially vulnerable population of workers.
“There is a push to retain women in the workforce and for good reason,” Vogel and his co-authors explain. “Gender diversity in the workplace relates to decreased sexual discrimination and harassment, better organizational governance and social responsibility, and increased occupational well-being for both men and women. Having women in top leadership roles is linked to the long-term financial performance of the organization.”
Workers don’t have to be the direct recipients of abuse to feel like the workplace is bringing them down, either. There is a consensus among researchers that workers can experience negative emotions like stress and anxiety simply by witnessing abusive behavior towards others in the workplace. Their study, “Vicarious abusive supervision and turnover in working mothers: Does financial dependency trigger emotional disconnect?” focused on female employees that reconsider returning to their roles while away on maternity leave due to abusive behavior in the workplace.
“Women in the final stages of pregnancy experience higher levels of oxytocin that in turn makes them more empathetic to those around them,” Vogel explains. “Unlike secondhand smoke, simply being in the vicinity of abusive supervision can negatively impact both work and mental health outcomes of pregnant bystanders.”
Another key factor negatively impacting workplaces is referred to in the “unfolding turnover model,” which reflects turnover decisions that are made after an extended period of time.
“Decisions aren’t always made instantaneously,” says Vogel. “Some of these processes happen over time. We sit with things, allow negative feelings to develop and evaluate our alternatives.”
The unfolding turnover model lets the researchers point to another important factor in reaching these decisions: emotional burnout. The taxing process of being physically pregnant and the emotional consequences of postpartum depression can take a toll on someone’s capacity for tolerating disrespect in the workplace, further exacerbating the desire to quit in the face of abuse.
“Some of our interviewees decided to exit the workforce or look for another job at that point,” says Vogel. “Someone may think to themselves, ‘My life has changed, I’ve now got a baby at home, perhaps it’s not worth going back to that toxic work environment.’”
Another factor that played a significant role in determining whether a mother left her role at work was financial independence.
“Women who were responsible for a large percentage of the household income were less likely to leave that toxic situation,” shares Vogel.
Concerns over financial dependency as well as relative seniority in an organization impact the ways in which people feel comfortable raising the issue of abusive behavior.
“If the supervisor is too powerful and you speak up to them to say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing,’ there are probably ways that that supervisor can find to make your life pretty tough,” says Vogel. “Supervisors are in a position of power. Often they’ve been around longer and they control people’s destinies in organizations.”
What can leaders learn and how can they enact change?
Both Harold’s and Vogel’s research findings point to an overwhelming need for top management to address abusive behavior head-on by disciplining abusive supervisors and demonstrating that such behavior is unacceptable.
“Even if people can learn to cope with an abusive supervisor, those supervisors are still not good people to have around,” says Harold. “You don’t want them to have such power over the lives and well-being of employees and the organization's functioning.”
Other recommendations include offering educational opportunities like sensitivity training and implementing anonymous feedback mechanisms. These tactics can help foster a work environment that protects employees by tackling gender biases head-on.
Leaders can also encourage a workplace environment that values strong social skills.
“As a starting point, (hiring) selection systems should go beyond just assessing technical competencies and also consider things like interpersonal skills,” says Harold. “The same would apply to promotion. If you have an employee who has a history of not getting along well with others, even if they are good (or great) at the technical aspects of their job, this is a person who should probably not be promoted to a supervisory position.”
Harold also expresses a need for organizations to ask themselves why a supervisor is behaving abusively in the first place. Assessing the structural factors that can lead to abusive behavior—such as overwhelming an inexperienced manager with too many responsibilities—can be vital information for organizations seeking to improve their work environments.
However, the removal of an abusive supervisor is an essential first step for organizations looking to move beyond past experiences and learn from them.
“I think the best thing to do would be to rid an organization of abusive supervisors,” says Vogel. “My ultimate goal is to show that this impacts people to such an extent that we need to do more about it. We can’t just sweep it under the rug.”
This article originally ran in On the Verge, the Fox School’s flagship research publication. To check out the full issue of On The Verge: Business With Purpose, click here.