Losing Control: Abusive Supervision and Self-regulation

Mary Mawritz

Any manager has the potential to be an abusive supervisor. That is what a six-year research project from associate professor of management Mary Mawritz revealed.

Much of the existing research on abusive supervision presumed that this type of supervision is an intentional choice and in turn causes employees to react in a calculated way by engaging in deviant behavior, like gossiping, arriving late to work and stealing office supplies.

“Past research has shown that abusive behavior makes you more deviant,” she said. “We’re not refuting that, but couldn’t it also be that that the abusive supervisor is reacting to the deviant employee?”

Mawritz’s research looked at the other side of the equation and determined that the supervisor’s behavior may actually be in response to the employee’s deviant behavior. Therefore, the abusive behavior may not be as intentional and calculated as previous research implies. Instead, the deviant behavior of employees drains supervisors of the ability to regulate their own behavior, and therefore they may lash out.

“Just as any parent could lash out at a child that misbehaves, any supervisor could potentially lash out or abuse an employee who is misbehaving,” she said.

While there are a number of factors outside the workplace that could cause a supervisor to be drained or stressed out, her research found that when someone is mistreated by others, they have to draw on self-regulating resources to process and understand what is happening. Dealing with problematic employees can subconsciously drain supervisors to the point they respond abusively because they are no longer able to constrain their behavior. This creates a cyclical situation instead of a direct cause and effect as previously assumed.

Her research also looked at two specific moderators: high performing employees and supervisors with bottom-line mentality.

Prior to analyzing her data, she believed that high performers would be less likely to be abused if they engage in deviant behavior. However, a review of her data sets showed just the opposite. It did confirm that when employees were deviant, they were more likely to be abused, but her key finding was that “the most provocative targets are those that are deviant and also high performers.” She attributes this to the cognitive dissonance created between the expectations based on past employee performance and the employee’s actions.

Her research also found that supervisors who are focused solely on the bottom line are more likely to become depleted by deviant employees and become abusive in their supervision.

The implication of her research is that all supervisors need to be careful in how they react in day-to-day interactions.

“As a supervisor you might be more susceptible to abusive behavior than you think simply because you are reacting to the situation around you,” she said. “It is important to think about dealing with problem employees in the right way to stop the cycle. It is natural to get upset, but says it’s not best to respond in an abusive way.”

Mawrtiz’s paper titled “I Just Can’t Control Myself: A Self-regulation Perspective on the Abuse of Deviant Employees” was published in the Academy of Management Journal in August 2016

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