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Build Your Career Office Life

Bad Boss Behavior Starts at Home

Bad Boss Behavior Starts at Home
Credit: Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock

It often isn't work inside the office that causes bosses to berate their employees, but rather problems they're facing on the home front that dictate their bad behavior, new research finds.

Having family issues spill over into the workplace is a major factor in why managers are abusive toward their staff members, according to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

“The implication has been that if you 'fix' the organization by getting rid of unfair practices or by hiring and promoting the right leaders, then abusive supervision won't happen," Stephen Courtright, one of the study's authors and a Texas A&M professor of management, said in a statement. "But it's not that simple."

When starting the study, the researchers theorized that "ego depletion" — the inability to control one’s impulses due to mental exhaustion — that stems from "family-to-work conflict" is a main reason why supervisors behave abusively toward subordinates. Family-work conflict occurs when family problems affect one's ability to work.

"Going into the study, we connected these two dots and predicted that family-work conflict could cause supervisors to be abusive toward subordinates because feeling that you're not able to do your job due to family problems induces mental exhaustion," Courtright said. "This feeling of exhaustion and helplessness translates into a loss of self-control, which would make managers more likely to act out their home-based frustration on subordinates."

For the study, researchers sent surveys over a four-month period to more than 150 mid-level managers and all of the employees who report directly to them at a Fortune 500 company located in the U.S. and Canada. The bosses were questioned about the extent to which they faced family-work conflict, and the type of explicit policies their companies had against abusive supervision, while the employees were asked how frequently their boss was verbally abusive toward them. [Abusive Bosses Make Everyone Mean ]

The study's authors then conducted a second round of surveys with 100 mid- and senior-level managers in organizations spanning 20 different industries across the U.S. This time, the research was done within a two-week window, with daily surveys being sent to the supervisors assessing their level of family-work conflict, ego depletion and abusive supervision.

"Across the two samples, we found that supervisors who experienced more family-work conflict were more likely to verbally abuse their employees,” Courtright said. "This happened because supervisors who experienced high levels of family-work conflict also experienced higher levels of ego depletion, which then led to more frequent displays of verbal abuse."

The research revealed that female supervisors were more likely to verbally abuse employees.

"Women have traditionally been expected by society to divert more attention away from work and toward home when family demands and stresses arise," Courtright said. "As a result, women end up experiencing higher levels of ego depletion, which in turn, means displaying more abusive supervision."

Whether or not family-work conflict impacted abusive supervision also depended on the type of culture each bosses' organization had built, according to the research.

"Supervisors who felt their organization would let them get away with being verbally abusive toward employees were more likely to do so when they faced family-work conflict," Courtright said.

The study's authors believe the results show why employers should have a vested interest in helping everyone in their organization, including managers, effectively balance their family and work lives.

“Managers are continually told they need to create better work-life balance for their employees — as if they never experience family-work conflict themselves," Courtright said. "So, one novel aspect of our study is that it shows how important good family-work dynamics are for managers too, not just their employees."

The study was co-authored by Richard Gardner, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas; Troy Smith, a doctoral student at Texas A&M;  Brian McCormick, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University; and Amy Colbert, an associate professor at the University of Iowa.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.