This article was originally published on the Council of Business and Society website.
In their recent research, Professor Aarti Ramaswami, ESSEC Business School and Professor Vesa Peltokorpi of Saitama University explore how the impact of abusive management on employees’ wellbeing can be tamed – or not.
The hero’s journey
Working life is much like the hero’s journey that forms the framework of many of our best stories, books and films. Fresh from school and studies, we answer the call to adventure and set out on the quest for a job, meet up with gatekeepers, helpers and mentors, climb over challenges and temptations and sometimes fall into the abyss only to be reborn. For those who have passed the honeymoon period of their careers, the word abyss may indeed resonate. Stress, harassment, sidelining, burnout, forced or voluntary job change – we are either witnesses or victims in the corporate hero’s journey that necessarily, like any good tale, contains its fair share of villains and hydras. Who might the latter be? Our very own managers and supervisors.
Can supervisors make employees sick? Professors Aarti Ramaswami of ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific, and Vesa Peltokorpi of Saitama University, Japan are behind the bluntness of the question – and for a reason. Research suggests that supervisors’ negative behaviours not only have detrimental effects on employees’ physical and mental health, but also on the purse strings of firms, the state and the taxpayer. According to the researchers, the annual national cost for missed wages due to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and health care costs, have been estimated to be a stunning USD $200–350 billion in the USA, USD $64.8–66.1 billion in the UK, and USD $232 billion in Japan.
Ramaswami and Peltokorpi decided to study the impact of abusive supervision. Characterised by the long-term mistreatment of subordinates, it is a source of chronic hindrance stress – the type of stress that produces both physical and mental damage and impairment. Think of the Commodus depicted in the well-known movie Gladiator and you’ll have a fair idea of the type of abusive manager that, as your working life progresses, worryingly seems to be a feature of the office corridor in almost every organisation.
Looking from a new angle
Ramaswami and Peltokorpi’s study adds to the search for understanding of the matter in three ways: first, they change the lens on what contributes to employee distress by examining how job satisfaction mediates the relationship between abusive supervision and subordinates’ physical and mental health problem outcomes. They then add cultural norms to the formula, arguing that different cultures might react in different ways to authoritarian or abusive behaviour. And lastly, they chose to step away from the bulk of research that typically focuses on western samples, and put their hypotheses to the test with data they collected from 603 employees through three surveys over a 12-month period in Tokyo, Japan.
All about resources
On a psychological level, stress can be thought of in terms of resources depleted verses resources renewed or gained. If an employee’s stock of resources – health, well-being, self-esteem and sense of purpose, for example – decrease, or threaten to decrease, at a greater rate than they can be replaced by gains or even out-paced by resource gains, then negative stress will naturally follow. Moreover, research has shown that losing resources has a much more negative effect on people than similarly valued gains – a bit like taking one step forward only to take two steps back.
Satisfied is not necessarily happy
Profs. Ramaswami and Peltokorpi decided to explore the issue further by adding two factors in their research: job satisfaction and a person’s individual perceptions of what constitutes stressful conditions at work. We could believe, for example, that if an employee is satisfied in his/her job, this positive factor would then outweigh and even decrease the amount of stress felt by the employee. But poor leadership and abusive supervision – lack of vision, zero praise, bullying, humiliation and even silent treatment – can lead subordinates to negatively evaluate their jobs and the surrounding features, depleting their resources and precipitating a chain reaction leading to deteriorating physical and mental health in which the factor of job satisfaction has little to say on the matter.
Of culture and the club
Humans are a diverse bunch. Individuals form groups which form clans and which form nations. And these have cultures. Within these cultures are sets of values that affect how individuals perceive and react to things – including stress and abusive behaviours. This is a unique angle brought to bear upon the issue by Profs. Ramaswami and Peltokorpi. They figured out that if values – say, courage, resilience, or on the other hand safety first and avoiding problems – have an impact on how we react and behave, then it follows that work behaviours across cultures are impacted too.
In their research conducted in Japanese companies, Profs. Aarti Ramaswami and Vesa Peltokorpi decided to introduce the notion of power distance into the issue – the extent to which an employee expects and accepts an unequal distribution of power. Indeed, former research has shown that inequality and hierarchical relations between individuals are seen to be normal, expected, and accepted more in East Asian countries such as Japan than in the more egalitarian Western countries such as the UK and USA.
Through their analysis of 603 Japanese employees, Ramaswami and Peltokorpi found that subordinates with higher power distance orientation – more deferential and accepting of unequal treatment – will not have to expend their resources as much to cope with abusive supervisory behaviors than subordinates with lower power distance orientation because they tend to regard their supervisors as less abusive and thus will experience less resource depletion. This suggests that subordinates’ power distance orientation safeguards the perceived and actual threat of value resources in terms of job satisfaction – with the end result that these employees will be less prone to stress triggering detrimental effects on their physical and mental health.
Turning research into action
The practical implications for organisations are already many (and indeed too many to feature here). Ground rules include nipping the issue in the bud during manager recruitment and paying special attention to expected team leader attributes during the selection process. Awareness initiatives among HR staff and managers on the negative effects of abusive supervision have a part to play too, as well as training in intercultural management and how cultural value orientations shape the outcomes of manager-employee interactions. The findings can also help organizations to better understand the long-term, health-related outcomes of abusive supervision. Indeed, level of job satisfaction might be an early indicator of health-related issues to come and might help organisations set into motion initiatives that mitigate abusive supervision and restore wellbeing through supportive social resources for employees.
Supervisors’ negative behaviours have detrimental effects on employees’ physical and mental health, company finances, the state and the taxpayer.
Abusive supervision is characterised by the long-term mistreatment of subordinates, including zero praise, bullying, humiliation and silent treatment.
On a psychological level, stress can be thought of in terms of resources depleted verses resources renewed or gained. Losing resources has a much more negative effect on people than similarly valued gains.
An employee’s level of job satisfaction has little impact on this loss of resources.
Culture has an impact: inequality and hierarchical relations between individuals are seen to be normal, expected, and accepted more in East Asian countries such as Japan.
To combat abusive supervision, companies can: state expected leader attributes during recruitment; set up awareness initiatives; take the intercultural aspect into account; set up supportive social resources for employees.
Peltokorpi, V., & Ramaswami, A. (2019). Abusive supervision and subordinates’ physical and mental health: the effects of job satisfaction and power distance orientation. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-27.