The study, “Perpetuating Abusive Supervision: Third Party Reactions to Abuse in the Workplace,” examines how third parties reacted to bad behavior on the part of supervisors. While many past studies have shown how the targets of the abuse react, this is the first scholarly effort at determining the reactions of others who see it or hear of it.
The study found that those third parties tend to accept the abuse if the supervisor is seen as productive and effective and they don't feel like they're the next target.
"When a supervisor's performance outcomes are high, abusive behavior tends to be overlooked by third parties when they evaluate a supervisor's effectiveness," the researchers wrote. "In contrast, abuse plays a predominant role when parties judge the personal appeal of the same high-performing abusive supervisor."
In other words, while they might not want to be friends with an abusive boss, they'll tolerate his behavior as long he’s productive. That line of thinking is even stronger from witnesses who feel detached from the abuse and aren't worried they're next in the line of fire.
The study also found that people who are more empathetic are less likely to overlook the behavior than less empathetic people. More empathetic people, the researchers found, were less likely to evaluate the same abusive boss as being effective.
To gather their data, the researchers had a group of subjects read about a fictitious CEO that portrayed him either as a high performer or a low performer and as either a verbally abusive person or not abusive. When asked to rate the CEO, the subjects gave high marks to the productive high performing CEO no matter his management style. In contrast, the non-abusive but poorly performing CEO was given low marks as an executive, despite his likeability.
The researchers said this could have an impact on how companies evaluate employees because previous studies show that employees who feel they are abused are less productive. Since most organizations rate employees using some kind of third-party assessment – by a boss or coworker, for instance – organizations that do not specifically have a system in place to assess a supervisor's behavior may be allowing behavior that leads to lower productivity in the long term.
"If organizations want to ensure that abusive supervisors are not rated as effective, thus reinforcing abusive behavior, they may need to design performance evaluations that specifically take into account both the outcomes achieved by supervisors and the way in which employees are treated in the process of achieving those outcomes," they said.
The study team was led by Jonathan Shaffer, a doctoral student in the UI Tippie College of Business, and included Amy Colbert, assistant professor of management and organizations, and doctoral student Stephen Courtright. Todd Darnold, an assistant professor at Creighton University, also participated in the study, which was presented recently at a conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.