Expressions of non-physical hostility that leaders perpetuate against their followers constitute what is called abusive supervision, academic research (Workplace Bullying Institute & Zoeby International, 2014; Tepper, 2000) suggests. Abusive behavior includes behaviors of repeated intimidation, humiliation, and verbal abuse. The people in positions of power and follow a command and control approach to managing are susceptible of misusing their power and abusing their subordinates. It is a psychologically-proven phenomenon, associated with human behavior. Even democracies are built with a system of checks and balances so that the executives in power do not end up abusing it. The same phenomenon applies to any organization and any manager exercising power over a group of individuals (academic research somewhere refers reporters/subordinates as followers).
A research, “Moving From Abuse to Reconciliation: A Power-Dependency Perspective on When and How a Follower Can Break the Spiral of Abuse” by Wee, Liao, D. Liu and J. Liu examined power imbalance and abusive supervision in two studies, done in different industries, on people with different frame of reference, and an entirely exclusive context. The researchers tracked 219 leader-follower dyads in the real estate industry in the first study, and 363 supervisor-subordinate dyads in a commercial bank in the second field study. Both studies “confirm power imbalance in favor of the supervisor as a root cause of abusive supervision,” as the researchers write in their article in the Harvard Business Review.
The perils of abusive supervision
Abusive supervision has been found to have “dire, consequential effects on followers, such as psychological distress” (Tepper, 2000). When the effects are looked at from the lens of the organization, then they translate to a high turnover of talent, low levels of job satisfaction, employee performance and employee productivity. Strictly from financial terms, researchers Tepper, Duffy, Henle, & Lambert, in their paper “Procedural injustice, victim precipitation, and abusive supervision” in 2006, wrote that abusive supervision cost U.S. corporations $23.8 billion annually. This study is 11 years old, so if readjusted to the inflation in the market, the estimated cost would be so much more. Supervision abuse often leaves the followers helpless and facing a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it – the reason why such a behavior is accepted and not always reported.
The power imbalance in the leader-follower relationship leads to this behavior, for leaders have the capacity to control the goals and resources of others by virtue of hierarchy, making them more powerful than their followers.
It is the dependency of subordinates on their managers (for leaves, flexibility in deadlines, rewards, and recognition, positive reviews, the increment in salaries etc.) that makes the latter powerful and retort to abusive behavior.
From abuse to reconciliation
The research on ‘Abuse to Reconciliation’ suggests that the power imbalance can be changed and subordinates can flip the abusive behavior in their favor and even motivate the leaders to reconcile and change their management methods by letting go of the abusive behavior.
The research shares a pivotal finding – the asymmetric dependence of followers on leaders indirectly leads to abusive behavior, and that abusive supervision is exerted because of the power structure in organizations.
While the research looks at the role followers can play in their own capacity to control the power dynamics and change the power structure, in this article we will highlight two approaches to changing supervision abuse to reconciliation:
- Individual approach – Role of follower
- Organizational approach – Role of human resources function
Leaders experience entitlement over the leader-follower dyad because of the asymmetric dependence of the follower on the leader. However, subordinates can eliminate and control it. The research suggests this can be done by two methods:
To avoid abusive supervision, followers can decrease their dependence on the supervisor. This implies a ‘motivational withdrawal’ – a strategy to move away from the goals controlled by the leader and pursue goals which aren’t in the leader’s control. A follower could also become distant from the leader by ‘network extension’. In simple words, it means finding an alternative route to his/her goals through other individuals. For instance, you could volunteer to work on a project, the project manager of which is not your supervisor. This distances you from the abusive supervisor, but doesn’t quite end the risk of abuse – because it could happen again with a different manager.
This implies increasing the supervisor’s dependence on the follower. Many supervisors depend on the subordinates for their subject matter/technical expertise and ideas; the work performance of supervisors depends on that of their reportees. With organizations becoming increasingly open, power dynamics can be controlled, altered, and balanced. Followers can balance the power and increase their supervisors’ dependence on them; for the latter are also dependent on the former. And, according to the researchers, the supervisors need to be reminded by their reportees that “You need me more than you think, so take better care of me.” Approach-balancing also breaks the spiral of abuse and opens an avenue wherein the supervisors start valuing their subordinates and recognize them as an instrumental source of goal and resource attainment.
The field study done by the researchers revealed two strategies, using which the followers can increase their supervisor’s dependence on them and bring an end to abusive supervision. They are:
This implies forming a close association with people in the team who have “leverage” over the boss – the people whose value is recognized by the supervisor and are not subject to abuse. Isolation increases the chances of abuse, and coalition eliminates exactly that.
This implies becoming indispensable for the supervisor. Then the risk of them losing out on you is so much that it all but eliminates any possibilities of abusive behaviour. Create a situation where the supervisor cannot jeopardize losing out on your technical expertise and your team approach. That motivates the supervisor to make an attempt to not just stop the abuse, but also make efforts to reconcile and mend the strained relationship – the research concluded.
More than being the responsibility of the followers to manage their supervisors, it should be the responsibility of the HR function to create an organization design which empowers them and gives them the necessary tools and resources to manage their supervisors. Organization design can introduce a system of checks and balances, balance the power structure, and introduce accountability in the system so that the supervisors can be held responsible by the subordinates. Tools like an upward feedback or a 360-degree feedback mechanism help, especially when they are integrated with the performance appraisal of a supervisor. It makes them cognizant of the fact that abusive behavior will not be overlooked and ignored and can directly impact their career growth. Other mechanisms such as periodic open feedback sessions where the followers rate and review the people management capabilities of their supervisors can help be a deterrent. A major role has to be played by the follower in turning abuse to reconciliation, and organization design goes a long way in changing that.
Followers can use the organization architecture to increase their supervisor’s dependence on them, and it’s HR’s role to create that architecture and both prevent and cure the plague called abuse.