So, what is Abusive Supervision?
Abusive Supervision exploits the power imbalance between supervisors and those they manage in order to humiliate, threaten, intimidate and sometimes coerce their people. Abusive Supervision focuses on the power to punish rather than the ability to reward in order to get what they want from their employees.
Abusive Supervision is, in fact, bullying behavior. The difference between an abusive supervisor and a bullying co-worker is the origin of the power imbalance. An abusive supervisor exploits a pre-existing power imbalance by virtue of his/her position within the organization. A bullying co-worker creates the power imbalance (or at least the perception of the same) through coercion, intimidation, ridicule, etc. Abusive Supervisory behavior includes screaming reprimands, public correction, inconsistent or unreasonable or capricious expectations, holding others responsible for their own poor communication skills, manipulative or “bait and switch” motivational tactics.
Abusive bosses are constant critics who insult, belittle and put down their people. They may be prone to out-of-control ranting or use explosive displays of rage to coerce their employees. Other types of abuse may not be so obvious. Some abusive supervisors are pleasant and affable to your face, but then stab you in the back when you are no longer present. Some abusive bosses will micromanage the work of their employees and insist that no decisions can be made by their employees, no matter how trivial, without their approval.
They may call people names and may make copious use of foul language. They may withhold paychecks in order to punish or force employees to do something. (Which in some states is illegal.) They will take credit for other people’s work.
This is a well-studied tactic of abusive supervisors. In a 2002 study, Duffy, Gangster and Pagon identified behaviors by abusive supervisors which were designed to obstruct a worker’s ability to develop and maintain positive interpersonal relationships with other workers in the organization.2
Abusive bosses will often attempt to make certain workers look bad. They may pass on gossip, or even fabricate or spin information about the health, physical appearance or the personal life of the targeted worker.
Other tactics include social exclusion by keeping the targeted worker’s name off invitation lists for social events, and failing to include them in company outings or special meetings. They may also plan meeting times to intentionally create a scheduling conflict for the targeted worker.
While the link between Abusive Supervision and workplace violence seems like an intuitive assumption, this has also been well established by multiple studies. When employees are victims of the abusive supervisory behaviors presented above, they become a higher risk for violence or aggression.3