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Abusive Bosses Make Everyone Mean

Abusive Bosses Make Everyone Mean
Credit: Art Family/Shutterstock

When bosses are mean to one employee, all their workers suffer, new research finds.

Supervisors who belittle and ridicule individual employees not only negatively affect those workers' attitudes and behaviors, but also cause their other staff members to act in a similarly hostile manner toward one another, according to a study led by a Michigan State University (MSU) business scholar.

"That's the most disturbing finding, because it's not just about individual victims now, it's about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not," Crystal Farh, the study's lead investigator and an assistant professor of management in MSU's Broad College of Business, said in a statement.

Farh explains the findings using social learning theory, which states that people learn and then model behavior based on observing others, such as their bosses.

For the study, researchers examined 51 teams of employees from 10 firms in China. The average team size was about six workers, and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support, and research and development. The study, which the researchers also replicated in a controlled laboratory setting in the United States, looked at nonphysical abuse, such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails.[Why You Should Confront Your Abusive Boss ]

The study's authors found that employees who directly experienced the abuse felt devalued, and contributed less to the team. Additionally, the entire team "descended into conflicts," which also reduced worker contributions, Farh said.

"Teams characterized by relationship conflict are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them," Farh said.

The study's authors said their findings have implications for companies that need to mend teams damaged by abusive supervision.

In the past, Farh said, companies may have simply tried to restore the self-esteem of abused employees. However, this study suggests efforts should also be made to fix the team's interpersonal relationships by re-establishing trust and harmony, Farh said.

The study, co-authored by Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia, was recently published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Originally published on Business News Daily

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based 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.