Horrible Bosses: What Can Make an Abusive Boss Change For the Better

June 13, 2018 by Josh Hrala

There are many types of bosses out there. Some are level-headed and personable, some are quiet and aloof, others are downright nasty. It’s the nasty ones we’ll be focusing on today because a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked into whether or not abusive bosses self-examined their own behaviour to make changes in the future.

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What’s that mean?

Well, we’ve all probably raised our voices at someone in the past and, upon reflecting about it later, felt guilty and sorry we did. Regardless of the reason, most of us don’t like yelling at people, but is this the same for bosses who seem to have an abusive management style?

“Based on prior research, it wasn’t clear whether supervisors even realized when they were abusive toward others,” said the study’s lead author Russ Johnson, from Michigan State University.

“However, some bosses realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it. This motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective leader behaviors.”

This motivation is based on how people in general keep their moral compass pointed in the right direction. When we do a bad deed, we feel as though we have strayed from this path, causing us to do good deed to correct it. In other words, it’s a kind of balancing act.

Johnson explains it by comparing it to a bank account. “People often act as though they have a moral ledger or bank account, such that doing good deeds adds credit whereas bad deeds withdraws credit. When there is a shortfall of credits, they are motivated to engage in good deeds to restore a balance,” he said.

“Abusive behavior weakens leaders’ moral credit. To try to compensate for their wrongdoings, they show behavior to make reparations and amends toward abused staff.”

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The best way to think about this is to imagine a boss yells at an employee. Do they consider this action at all? Do they reflect upon it and then change their course? Or do they keep this up and never change?

To find out how bosses thought about their own actions, the team examined workplaces by having bosses fill out surveys about their performance throughout the day and also had their employees gauge how willing the bosses were to change their actions.

Basically, these surveys seem to be there to force the boss to self-reflect. After all, if you have to fill out a survey a couple times per day that was all about your actions, you’d have to confront them, right?

What the team found was that most bosses did try to keep this ‘moral balance’ by correcting their abusive behaviour after realizing they were abusive.

“In addition to feeling guilty after engaging in their own abusive behavior, the supervisors felt as though they lost ‘moral credit.’ To build that credit back up, they showed types of sympathetic, supportive and reparative behaviors toward their employees,” Johnson said.

This suggests that when bosses are confronted with their own actions, they will try to make things right, which is a good takeaway.

“The positive takeaway is that our research suggests that some supervisors realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it, which motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective task and person-oriented leader behaviors,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said that organizations that focus more on ethical leadership have less abusive bosses, which indicates that these topics should be reinforced throughout organizations.

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The weird thing about all of this is whether or not bosses legitimately change their behaviour. On an average day, will a boss sit back and reflect on how they treat their staff? Or will they simply continue doing what they’ve always done?

The study shows that using surveys is a good way to get people to look at their past behaviour and make positive changes. However, it remains unseen if bosses will do this on their own. Hopefully, organizations take note of the fact that moral and ethical topics should be top-of-mind throughout organizations because that seems to have the most impact.

“Johnson said that if a workforce goal is to create healthy workplaces and to reduce abusive supervisory behavior, then the focus should be on supervisors and understanding why they engage in such acts and how it affects them,” Michigan University reported.

“Only then can we start to create contexts that discourage such abuse from happening, he said.”

The research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Read it here.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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