Lazaridis School of Business & Economics
MEDIA RELEASE: Lack of power makes bosses vulnerable to abuse
By Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily contributor
Some employees aren't afraid to retaliate against their bosses because they know they can get away with it, new research suggests.
The study found that employee retaliation against abusive bosses which includes things like spreading gossip about their boss, playing a mean prank or making an obscene gesture is most likely to occur in situations in which the supervisor lacks the means to punish an aggressing subordinate.
The researchers said that the outcome of situations in which employees are aggressive toward their supervisors depends on the extent of both the supervisor's coercive power and the subordinate's self-control. The study discovered that the combination of low supervisor coercive power and low employee self-control vastly increases the likelihood of retaliation.
Our findings [demonstrate] that the absence of self-control capacity or resources need not necessarily lead individuals to behave aggressively in response to abusive supervision," the study's authors wrote. "Given the proper incentives (i.e., perceiving potential punishment from supervisors), individuals appear to be quite capable of mobilizing their inner resources to override their natural inclination to directly harm an abusive supervisor."
Huiwen Lian, who did much of the research for the study as a doctoral candidate at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said that at first, retaliating against an abusive boss sounds intrepid even to the point of folly, but upon further analysis, the less courageous and foolish it turns out to be.
"There's a great difference between retaliating against a powerful boss who can do you a lot of harm and a boss who cannot and cases of the latter are much more common than instances of the former," Lian said.
The study was based on surveys of 384 employees in a wide variety of industries. Questions in the survey centered on the following:
How frequently employees were subject to one or more forms of supervisor abuse, such as being ridiculed, getting the silent treatment or being lied to;
The extent of supervisors' coercive power (e.g., making work difficult for employees or assigning them to undesirable jobs);
The extent of supervisors' reward power, such as the authority to bestow raises;
How frequently employees resorted to some form of aggression against their supervisors; and
The participants' capacity for self-control (e.g., whether they found it difficult to plan ahead, how quickly they would give up on a difficult task or their likelihood of yielding to temptation).
The research also revealed that a high degree of self-control not only keeps subordinates' hostility to supervisors from generating outright acts of aggression, but also diminishes the amount of hostility that subordinates actually feel.
"By reappraising the situation in favor of a nonhostile interpretation or deploying attention away from anger-provoking stimuli or thoughts, individuals may mitigate the extent to which they experience negative emotions," the study's authors wrote.
The authors propose that companies screen job applicants for self-control at both the supervisory and subordinate levels, and that they provide training in it for employees at both levels. In addition, organizations should create situations that motivate employees to increase their self-control.
"In particular, our findings suggest that punishment or perceived potential negative consequences can be particularly effective at mitigating aggressive behaviors directed toward supervisors," they wrote in the study.
The research, published in the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal, was co-authored by Douglas Brown, Lindie Liang and Rachel Morrison of the University of Waterloo; D. Lance Ferris of Pennsylvania State University; and Lisa Keeping of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.