Studies show that abusive leader behaviors "trickle down" to lower organizational levels, but this research ignores that many abused supervisors do not perpetuate abuse by harming their own subordinates.
Bosses who suppress compassion in their role have a change in their sense of morality and are more likely to either care less about being moral or to say that it's all right to be flexible about following moral rules. The suppressing of compassion causes cognitive dissonance that people have to resolve by rearranging their attitudes or beliefs about morality which then reflects on how they treat others.
UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Researchers have previously found that world-class leaders are characterized by happiness, inner calm, effortlessness and ease of functioning, absence of fear, and a sense of perfection.
"Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams," Taylor said. "Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn't reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders."
The study found those who relied on their morals and integrity to defy their manager's abusive approach felt encouraged to prevent it from moving beyond their bosses. A compassionate mindset then overrides a manager's abuse and employees are able to express a greater sense of kindness to those in subordinate roles.
Through multiple experiments over several years, the researchers examined the differences in attitude and behavior of supervisors who had been abused by superiors and those who had not and, in turn, how each group treated their employees. They found that abused supervisors who purposefully distanced themselves from their manager expressed respect and kindness toward their own employees, despite the poor treatment they received from their own boss.
"The lesson here isn't to hire more abusive managers, of course, but to try to encourage people who have been abused, among other things, to say, 'Look, I'm not like my boss,'" Taylor said. "You can take a stand-not just by reporting the bad behavior, but by actively rejecting this abusive leadership style."
Taylor said he doesn't expect workplace abuse to disappear, but he notes that companies are learning and trying to solve the problem through training and maintaining positive workplace climates.