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Calling time on emotional abuse at work

Dr. Christian Tröster is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior - KLU
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Suffering emotional or verbal abuse by a supervisor at work can lead to employees co-operating more with managers, rather than blowing the whistle on them, researchers warn.

Professors Christian Tröster and Niels Van Quaquebeke at Kühne Logistics University (KLU) University in Hamburg conducted an experiment and a diary study with employees to find out how they responded to non-physical abuse by a superior at work.

They asked one group to participate in an online scenario simulating an abusive work relationship. They also asked another group of participants to record a daily diary of abusive supervision in their workplace over a two-week period.

They discovered that if an employee perceives their overall relationship with their supervisor to be positive, emotional, or verbal abuse triggers feelings of guilt. This means that they are likely to be more, not less, co-operative in meeting their manager’s demands.

Professor Christian Troester, co-author, said: “Abusive supervision is a major issue for employees and companies and yet it is often difficult to detect in a work situation. We have found that guilt often leads to abused staff rewarding and perpetuating abusive behaviour. And the manager perceiving that they are being an effective leader.”

The authors say that organisations that use employee outputs alone to judge someone’s leadership quality could be missing vital signs of abusive supervision. They say that more organisations should follow the example of companies such as Google – where leadership quality is measured by peers and subordinates. Here, getting promoted doesn’t just depend on traditional measures such as financial targets. It is also measured by whether supervisors treat their people with respect, whether they are emotionally intelligent, and understand other people’s needs.

The study, in press in the Academy of Management Journal, overturns prevailing research on the topic, which asserts that abused employees are likely to become less co-operative at work.

Professor Niels Van Quaquebeke, co-author, concludes: “We do not assume that supervisors set out to abuse their staff. Many are probably oblivious to how they are acting. But without measures beyond a team’s outputs, it is very difficult for them, or their organisation, to judge effectively how they are performing as leaders, and the impact on their colleagues.”

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