Why you should care
Because we’ve all suffered under the oppressive thumb of obnoxious supervisors.
While you might be quietly (or not so quietly) cheering for karma to knock your jerk of a boss around a bit — and maybe loosen a few teeth in the process — it turns out that the cognitive benefits bullying supervisors gain from their boorish behavior are often short-lived, and the offending bosses are actually harmed for their wicked ways.
Authors of “The Short-Lived Benefits of Abusive Supervisory Behavior for Actors: An Investigation of Recovery and Work Engagement” recently demonstrated that:
The short-term benefits supervisors reap from their abusive actions don’t pay off in the long run.
Why? The human mind has only so much energy to draw from during a typical workday. “Resource allocation theories posit that people have a finite amount of attentional resources — or mental energy, in layperson’s terms — available to them at any given moment,” explains Russell E. Johnson, associate professor of management at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, and one of the main authors of the study. As mental energy decreases, it becomes more difficult for people to “control their subsequent behavior.”
Studies have shown that employees react even more negatively when bosses are inconsistent.
The study, carried out in the U.S. and China, examined the tendency to treat employees poorly, especially when confronted with high job demands. Two experiments were conducted. The first, which studied university students from China and supervisors recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a human intelligence crowdsourcing marketplace), incentivized and punished supervisors to motivate — and even feel hostile toward — underperforming subordinates. The second study invited supervisors working in China to report on their own abusive conduct, and note how it affected their mental energy recovery levels (positively or negatively), and the time frames in which this occurred.
The study showed that while abusive behavior can offer short-term recovery advantages (replenishing attentional resources), since managers don’t have to waste energy suppressing their nastier urges — like berating subordinates who may then seek to undermine their abusive supervisors — these benefits are short-lived, and come back to haunt oppressive bosses in “as little as a week’s time.”
Linda Neider, a professor of management at the University of Miami, believes the study has the potential to help “train potential abusers to utilize more appropriate behaviors.” One limitation of the study, she found, was “that it attempts to understand abusive supervision over a very short period of time,” when understanding the long-term consequences “may be more meaningful.”
“Even mild forms of abuse in small doses are destructive,” Johnson says. Studies have shown that employees react even more negatively when bosses are inconsistent. “Working for a manager who switches between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personas is very stressful,” he says, because employees don’t know which persona they’ll have to deal with on any given day.
“Over time the abusive supervisor builds up a cadre of enemies who simply wait on the sidelines, hoping for the opportunity to watch or proactively help them to fail,” Neider says. One of the goals of the study, according to Johnson, is to replace abusive strategies with healthier ones by making managers more aware of the social impact of their actions, and “enhancing their sense of empathic concern” for the people toiling beneath them.
At the end of the day, the fix for replenishing mental energy could be as simple as learning how to psychologically detach from work for short periods of time (quick naps, non-working lunches, physical exercise, meditation, etc.), which could make the lives of supervisors with abusive tendencies in high demand jobs — and their long-suffering subordinates — a hell of a lot better, or at least less of a mental drain.