Research on bad managers

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By Zhanna Lyubykh and Jennifer Bozeman and Nick Turner and Sandy Hershcovis—The Conversation 3 minutes Lily

Surveys show that about one in seven American workers feel their manager engages in hostile behavior towards them. Abusive supervision can range from relatively benign behaviors such as lying or not giving credit for work to more serious actions, such as name-calling or teasing.

While previous research has suggested that it is poor worker performance that causes managers’ abusive reactions, we wanted to examine whether the supervisor’s misperception deserves at least some of the blame.

So we conducted two studies, building on research showing that people are prone to perceptual errors when judging negative events. One of them is the fundamental attribution error, a tendency to overattribute negative results to the personality of others rather than to other explanations.

In the first study, we recruited 189 pairs of employees and supervisors from various industries. We asked supervisors to rate their employees’ job performance as well as their conscientiousness or diligence, that is, how organized, industrious and careful they are. We then asked employees to rate themselves on the same measures.

Finally, we asked employees to rate how much their supervisors had abused them, such as ridiculing them in front of others, in the past month.

We found that managers viewed underperforming employees as less diligent than the workers themselves. Research shows that self-ratings of personality traits like diligence are generally more accurate than external ratings. This suggests that supervisors thought low performers were less diligent than they actually were. Moreover, these employees perceived higher levels of abuse than others.

This study did not include independent measures of employee diligence or manager abuse. So in our second, we wanted to determine whether managers always blamed a lack of care for an incident involving poor performance, even when the supervisor knew the employee was not the primary cause.

We recruited 443 supervisors through an online portal to complete two surveys. In the first, we asked them to think of one of their employees whose first name started with a randomly generated letter and rate their level of awareness. We used random letters to avoid bias.

A week later, we contacted the same supervisors to respond to the second survey, presenting each with an imaginary incident in which the employee from the previous survey performed poorly on a work project. We then randomly assigned them to various scenarios indicating what was responsible for the poor outcome, such as the employee, a software malfunction, or both. We asked them how much of the blame they attributed to the software versus the employee.

We found that when supervisors were told that the employee’s lack of effort and dysfunction were also responsible for the poor outcome, they always blamed the employee the most. When asked to provide feedback, managers who blamed employees were more objectively abusive, such as using angry expressions or threats.

why is it important

The consequences and costs of abusive supervision are significant. For example, it can worsen employees’ psychological health and can cost U.S. employers up to $24 billion a year in lost productivity.

To suggest that abusive management behaviors are justified or that a worker may deserve treatment is problematic because it places the responsibility for correcting these harmful actions on the targets of the abuse rather than the perpetrators. Our research suggests that it may be misperceptions on the part of managers that deserve more blame.

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