Bullying a supervisor may seem counterintuitive – how can a subordinate intimidate someone who has so much power over him or her?
But it happens. While physical violence against supervisors and indeed, co-workers in general , is relatively rare, acts such as rude remarks, verbal back-stabbing and public challenges to the manager’s intelligence or competence are more common.
Psychologists know that people with a history of aggression are more likely to target an authority figure such as a manager. Using aggressive tactics to influence others is a learned behaviour that, over the years, has worked for that individual. Using coercion or even force probably got the aggressive individual what he wanted. Dropping the behaviour in adulthood is hard to do when it has worked in the past.
Furthermore, staff who bully their leaders tend to suffer from either very low or very high self esteem. It appears that people at both ends of the self-esteem spectrum can have a tendency to use aggression to get their way.
People with low self-esteem lean on these tactics to offset a sense of inferiority-they use denigrating and dominating behaviour to build themselves up at others’ expense. At the opposite end of the continuum, folks with very high self-esteem can use aggression to protect an inflated sense of self. If these people are criticized, they can become defensive and may resort to aggression to reassert a positive view of themselves.
There are a number of reasons companies tolerate this kind of behaviour from employees. Bully-tolerant organizations often see forceful behaviour as honest or direct communication, something they value. These companies are loathe to take action, especially if the culture is one that values toughness and rewards aggressive attitudes. Sometimes employers overvalue the aggressive employee and believe he or she is too hard to replace. Or, the bullying individual is a long-serving employee to whom the employer feels loyal.
To offset the chances of employing a supervisor bully, companies invest money and time to weed out aggressive job applicants to prevent workplace aggression.
But how effective is this route?
A recent study in The Journal of Applied Psychology, conducted by Michelle Inness at the School of Business at the University of Alberta, Julian Barling and Nick Turner at the Queen’s University School of Business, suggests it’s not that successful.
It appears that manager bullying has more to do with how the worker is being treated by the supervisor than previously thought. Employees who feel unfairly treated – those who didn’t receive the promotion they thought they deserved, or who observe that company policy is not uniformly applied – may resort to aggression. If they feel they have been treated rudely or without respect, there is an increased likelihood they’ll retaliate.
Even more importantly, the researchers found that if staff experience abuse from a manager such as shouting, rumour-mongering, throwing things or being over-controlled and routinely humiliated and criticized, they may resort to aggressive behaviour.
They found that staff with no history of aggression and normal levels of self esteem were more likely to be aggressive if their manager acted abusively towards them.
The researchers are not excusing this aggressive employee behaviour, but their work suggests that companies can reduce workplace aggression by hiring and training respectful supervisors. They suggest that staff who become aggressive may be doing so, in response to an abusive managerial style and helping the manager change his or her style may help.
At the same time, companies can decide to fire the aggressive staff person, or let the abusive supervisor go, or move the parties to other departments – and they often do those things. However, if a company decides to keep the manager on, there are ways to help that person reduce behaviours that make staff see red.
In our practice, we have observed that supervisors who are empathic, respectful and above-board foster staff loyalty and collaboration.
Empathic supervisors are less likely to treat employees badly because they have the ability to understand the impact their behaviour has on staff. An inability to look at how a particularly noxious leadership style, one that involves yelling, public humiliation and the like – affects staff and can end in aggressive tit-for-tat interactions.
If staff decide to give a supervisor a dose of his or her own medicine, an escalating cycle of aggressive, obnoxious and uncivil behaviour can result. When a company culture is considered toxic, it is often characterized by a vengeance mentality.
Respectful supervisors refuse to engage in behaviours that compromise staff dignity. They recognize people’s need to save face, find ways to give feedback to help staff do a better job rather than using their power to make staff feel foolish. They do not abuse their power. By recognizing that a power imbalance exists in any supervisor/subordinate relationship, respectful supervisors attempt to make communication between themselves and staff easy.
This does not mean that they act like door mats. If staff act in a disrespectful way towards others or the manager, the supervisor discusses the behaviour-“I noticed that you rolled your eyes and tapped your pen loudly during Sue’s presentation this morning. I know that you would not want to be treated in this way and I’d like you to stop doing that-would you be willing to do that for me? I’d like Sue to know that we talked about this-so you may want to apologize to her before I talk to her myself.”
Supervisors who are above board, expect everyone to treat each other with respect and hold themselves accountable to the same standard tend to be rewarded by loyal staff.
If managers explain their decisions, help staff anticipate what might happen during changes at the company and leaders apologize for their mistakes, staff feel cared for and less likely to be antagonistic.
If you, as a supervisor, are having trouble with your own aggression towards employees and notice an increase in belligerence towards you, it’s time to act. Obtain feedback from your manager and subordinates. If people are afraid to talk to you about how you come across (which is probably the case) ask your manager to observe you on the job. Think about how you react to feeling frustrated, or overwhelmed. Is there someone on staff who irritates you? If you tend to get mad every few days or every week, or you focus anger on one or two employees, start shifting your behaviour, get coaching or training to learn to communicate and interact collaboratively. You’ll feel better about your job and your staff will feel better about you.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at email@example.com
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.