Oct. 4, 2019

Study finds abusive supervisors can weaken bonds between employees

Haskayne School of Business researcher says workers must ensure their professional networks remain strong

Just when they need the support of their co-workers, people who are being bullied by psychologically abusive bosses tend to instead distrust and resent their fellow employees, says a researcher.

“Their friends and colleagues in their work group is where people go to find comfort and solace,” says Dr. Justin Weinhardt, PhD, who is an associate professor at the Haskayne School of Business. “But they start to experience these negative emotions toward their co-workers, even though their co-workers aren’t mistreating them in any way.”

Along with Haskayne associate professor Dr. Babatunde Ogunfowora, PhD, and Western University graduate student Christine Hwang, Weinhardt co-authored a paper into the problem that was recently published in the Journal of Management.

Bullying takes variety of forms

“What we found was that supervisors have a tendency to target some individuals and not others,” Weinhardt says. “When you’re being psychologically abused or bullied by a supervisor and your co-workers aren’t, you tend to resent your co-workers and become envious of them, and that makes things worse.”

Justin Weinhardt

People who are bullied by their boss tend to distrust their fellow employees, says Justin Weinhardt.

Adrian Shellard, for the Haskayne School of Business

The paper is based on two separate surveys in 2013 and 2018 totalling nearly 1,000 people, with the majority from the Toronto area. They consisted of white collar workers from industries ranging from technology and education to retail and banking.

Psychological bullying by supervisors can take a variety of forms, says Weinhardt. “It can be when they repeatedly yell at you or ridicule you tell you that you’re incompetent, and your opinions or actions are stupid and put you down in public in front of other employees, and overall be rude and hurtful,” he says.

“It can also be more subtle and build over time, and go right up to the line regarding company policies against abuse. It might not always be that you are getting yelled at. You may get the silent treatment.”

Babatunde Ogunfowora

Babatunde Ogunfowora co-authored the study, which finds abusive bosses can weaken employee bonds.

Mark Skogen, for the Haskayne School of Business

Instead of reacting to such abuse by turning on their co-workers, people should cultivate self awareness of their responses, says Weinhardt, adding it is vital that their professional networks are strong both outside and inside the workplace.

“There are always going to be a few negative aspects at work not everything is going to be perfect but if you have friends and good social relationships, it helps buffer against the times when they are bad,” he says. “You can also use these networks to help get another job somewhere else.”

'It's just like ducklings'

Psychological abuse by supervisors harms organizations by affecting the emotional attachment of employees, says Weinhardt. “It’s just like ducklings following their mother,” he says.

“Human children do that with their parents, and adults do it with their work groups. They feel that ‘I am part of something,’ and when they are psychologically abused by their supervisors, they can start to have an insecure attachment to the group.”

It can result in what Weinhardt calls an avoidance attachment. “This employee would rather just walk away from the situation, rather than try and fix it,” he says. “They end up quitting their jobs, which is very expensive for the organization because it not only loses valuable people, it has to spend time and money recruiting and training new employees.”

Another response is to form an “anxious attachment” and remain in the workplace, he says. “They may try to balance the scales in regards to the abuse, so they might engage in counterproductive behaviours, such as taking items from work, or engaging in time theft where they’re not really working, but they’re still in the office,” he says.

An alternate strategy for people with this attachment is to simply try to wish away the abuse, even going so far as to try to sympathize with their boss, says Weinhardt. “They will try to do extra work to make their supervisor happy, and unfortunately what the research shows is that it actually makes things worse because their supervisor learns they can take advantage of them,” he says.