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The economic costs of poor management are significant. Gallup estimates that about $1 trillion is lost each year due to unrealized productivity and reduced employee engagement in the United States. Part of this economic loss is due to fairly benign factors such as inadequate training or outdated management practices. But a non-trivial part can probably be attributed to a specific form of toxic leadership.
It is called abuse supervision — a term used to describe leaders who regularly engage in hostile behavior toward their employees, including outbursts of anger, public displays of ridicule, and baseless judgments of blame or criticism. Research estimates that abusive bosses cost U.S. employers $23.8 billion annually, which should come as no surprise as victims of workplace abuse often report increased emotional stress, burnout, and other health-related problems.
In addition to such physiological and psychosomatic problems, abusive bosses threaten their victim’s ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships at work. Research shows, for example, that victims of workplace abuse can make own the abuse and debt themselves for its occurrence, leading abused employees to believe that others will interpret the abuse as evidence that they are not worth befriending.
Support for this idea, recently research shows that employees who are victims of abuse may be concerned about whether they are relationally valuable (trustworthy, likeable, respected) in the eyes of others and will work hard to remain in the good graces of their colleagues.
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Because building and maintaining positive social relationships at work is critical to both the well-being and productivity of all employees, it is important to understand how to deal with the potential social harm that can come with having a violent boss.
Try to understand why the abuse is happening
If you are the target of someone’s anger and hostility, especially if it comes from people in a position of power, your first instinct might be to look within and consider whether you bear any responsibility for the mistreatment.
This is not necessarily a bad habit. Such forms of honest self-reflection are important for maintaining positive social relationships. However, sometimes the abuse is unjustified. In such cases, it can be important to understand why the abuse has taken place.
For example, while abusive leadership may be a habit, leaders sometimes exhibit impulsive behavior due to breakdowns in self-regulation. That is, things like poor sleep quality or the daily demands that come with it dealing with customers can cause leaders to lash out mindlessly at their employees.
While this doesn’t excuse their behavior, it can provide context for why the behavior occurred, whether it’s expected to reoccur, and whether it’s possible or worth trying to salvage the relationship. After all, when leaders impulsively engage in abusive behavior, they are more likely to feel guilty and work to mend the relationship with the abused employee.
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Be careful not to continue the cycle of abuse
Sometimes it is possible and worth trying to salvage a relationship with an abusive boss. However, it is important to recognize that such attempts can also backfire and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of abuse, especially when the leader’s abuse is habitual or an expression of an underlying toxic personality.
A recent one study published in the Management magazine found that battered employees who valued positive interpersonal relationships at work worried about their self-image and tried to protect it through kindness and ingratitude. In particular, the battered employees they studied tried to show their worth to their colleagues by supporting or helping them with their work tasks and tried to win their leader’s favor through praise and flattery.
While such behavior may reflect victims’ attempts to mend relationships with their abusive leader, the authors caution that it may inadvertently continue the cycle of abuse, as it may signal to the leader that their abusive behavior is turning into positive results.
The study states: “While we absolutely recognize the many and varied reasons why some individuals tolerate violent workplace relationships (job insecurity, financial strain, lack of other options, etc.), we encourage those who experience abuse in the workplace to consider taking action. to stop the abuse if possible, even if it means their reputation in the workplace may suffer.”
Such actions may include discussing the matter with your leaders boss, filing a formal complaint with HR, requesting a transfer to another department or, if all else fails, seeking employment elsewhere.
As the authors note, “Calling more attention to the abuse they experience can be a difficult step, but it may be the only way to stop the cycle of abuse.”