Study Shows How Toxic Bosses Wreck Teamwork

Below is an article sent to me by a colleague that comments on how supervisors have an incredible impact on the performance and productivity of the teams that work under them. If only we could all get our negative supervisors to read this article:

What if you were on a team of six people who had been toiling for two months to organize a company retreat and just as everything was coming together, you and your colleagues came into work on a Tuesday morning to find a group email from the boss that said the following about the details you’d yet to finalize: “I guess these problems are the price you pay for the critical mistakes this team made early on in the process. . . . So it’s time to stop screwing around and stay focused and committed to figuring out how to get the information you need. Just get it done!” Before signing off, the boss singled out the work of two team members, Chris and Morgan: “I personally found your ‘opinions’ to be an embarrassment.”

Contrast that with an alternative email that mentions the problems the team has yet to resolve but goes on to say, “this sort of thing happens all the time. . . . It is really important to stay focused and committed to figuring out how to get the information you need. Challenges are simply part of the process!”  That email says about Chris and Morgan’s input, “I put several of those ideas in the final report I delivered to the Dean and the rest of the Executive Leadership Team. . . . We’ll see what their reactions were to your suggestions.”

We all know which email would make us feel better about ourselves and more motivated to get the job done. But until now, there has been little empirical evidence about just how workplace teams are affected by abusive bosses who ridicule their supervisees and give no credit for their hard work. Academics have written extensively about how bosses can make individual workers feel awful about themselves and unmotivated on the job. But given that increasing numbers of workers are part of project teams, Crystal Farh, an assistant professor at Michigan State’s Broad College of Business, decided to team up with Zhijun Chen of the University of Western Australia and examine how the group dynamics of a team are affected by abusive supervisors. The result is a paper, published in the Aug. 11 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, called “Beyond the Individual Victim: Multilevel Consequences of Abusive Supervision in Teams.”

One of the findings:  If you’re on a team and your boss singles you out for criticism, then you are likely to feel truly awful about yourself. Though character attacks make almost all of us feel lousy, we have an especially hard time finding our footing when belittled in the team context. “At the individual level, if no one else on the team is abused, then I feel even worse about myself,” says Farh. Once a team member feels that way, found the study, they are less likely to contribute much. In other words, they shut down.

The study also found something that’s arguably more disturbing: the targets of the abusive boss’s ridicule will often turn around and start abusing other team members. “The team descends into relationship conflict,” says Farh. “They can be short and rude with one another and have a lot of negativity in their interactions.”  This can be highly corrosive to the group effort. “People speak up less, stop helping each other, and they even seek to leave the team,” says Farh. “We wondered whether people would stand up for each other and there would be resilience in the team. Instead people turn on each other and the whole social contract becomes relationally toxic.”

I’m struck by this finding, because the four times I’ve worked for abusive bosses, the opposite happened. In one instance, the boss was abusive toward anyone whose performance slipped, including me. But when he exploded and yelled invectives and sometimes even fired people on the spot (he’d later call and sheepishly offer to rehire them), my colleagues rallied around the target with support. Though he tended to single out his victims, sometimes he inveighed against all of us as one big, incompetent team. In another job, I worked on a three-person team for a boss who had a lot of bad days. She took her aggression out on the sweetest, youngest, least experienced member of our team. Farh says her work demonstrates that in such situations, the abused team member is likely to feel guilty, fearful and ashamed. But my colleague knew it was the boss who had the problem, not she. In fact there was a happy ending to that story: The boss eventually lost her job because she treated underlings so poorly.

But of course that’s often not the case, and abusive bosses hang on.

Farh and Chen conducted their research in an intriguing way, half as a field study and half in the lab. For the field study, Chen persuaded 10 companies in China to allow them to conduct research on 51 different teams by submitting questionnaires to workers. The average team was six workers, and the teams worked in a variety of areas including customer service, tech support, and research and development.

Farh says she and Chen were especially interested in China because little research of this sort has been conducted there and certain Chinese values can make abusive supervision more palatable to workers. China is very high on what Farh calls “power distance,” meaning the extent to which workers feel comfortable with a vertical power hierarchy where the worker is far below the boss. Farh and Chen believed that if they saw negative effects on teams from abusive bosses in China, the same would hold true even more strongly in the US and other western countries.

To conduct the study, they asked workers to rate their bosses on a scale of one to five on 10 different abusive behaviors, as defined by Bennett Tepper, a leader in organizational management scholarship. I’ll share these here, since I figure many readers wonder whether their difficult bosses qualify as truly abusive. Apply this test and you can be sure:

  1. Makes negative comments about me to others.
  2.  Ridicules me.
  3. Is rude to me.
  4. Doesn’t give me credit for jobs requiring a lot of effort.
  5. Expresses anger at me when he/she is mad for another reason.
  6. Blames me to save himself/herself embarrassment.
  7. Tells me I’m incompetent.
  8. Ignores or gives me the silent treatment.
  9. Tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid.
  10. Reminds me of my past mistakes and failures.

Interesting side note: In a 2007 study, Tepper, who is a professor of management and human resources at Ohio State, found that nearly 14% of US workers are subject to abusive supervisors. Because of the damage mean bosses inflict on workers’ self esteem and productivity levels, Tepper estimated in a 2006 paper that abusive supervision costs  companies $23.8 billion a year.

In the Chinese sample, the mean 1-to-5 ranking was 2.5, so at least workers’ perception of bosses’ abusive behavior is not terribly high. Nevetheless, Farh and Chen found that work teams were thrown into conflict by abusive bosses and productivity took a nose dive.

The researchers also ran a test of their hypotheses in a lab with 276 business school students. That’s where the abusive emails come in. The respondents were told that they were part of a four-person task force slow to meet their deadlines. The subjects then got two different sets of emails. The first included the withering email I quoted at the beginning of this post, plus an email from “Morgan” saying how tough it has been to work with the boss, named J.P.: “Was it really necessary for J.P. to send a nasty email questioning my value added to this team?” The other note, from “Chris,” said, “From Day 1 of my being on the task force, J.P. has been nothing but rude about my ideas and condescending of [sic] my work.”

The second group got the nice email I quoted above and two emails saying how “stress-free” it had been to work with J.P. and how “fair” he was about ideas. Like the Chinese study, the lab test showed that abusive bosses were destructive to team performance, causing infighting and hostility among team members. By contrast, those who got the nice emails were motivated to perform at their best.

One result the lab study showed that wasn’t apparent in the field: Because the study subjects were not the targets of abuse—they were obviously not Morgan or Chris—the researchers could measure how team members who were not singled out for abuse felt if they were on a team that was being ridiculed and had individuals who the boss specifically criticized. Those participants experienced few positive emotions like pride, and instead they felt guilt, shame and hostility toward others on their teams. “Even if you’re not personally involved, you feel more negative emotions,” says Farh. “The team is still at risk for relationship conflict.” Adds Farh, “No one wins in those situations.”

What is a worker with an abusive boss to do? Farh says she was surprised that she didn’t find more coworkers who wanted to support team members. She suggests workers try to position themselves so that they are not dependent on the abusive boss, and/or to find another job as a fallback plan.

Drawing on my own experience, I take issue with some of her ideas. First, I think in many instances it’s unrealistic to try to move off a team and it’s certainly not easy in this climate for many of us to find new jobs. What if you like the work you do but just don’t like your toxic boss? I think there is a lot that you can do together with your co-workers and work you can do on yourself. Band together, go out for drinks after work and vent. Tell Morgan and Chris you know they’re doing a good job, that they’ve been unfairly singled out and that you’re on their side. Perhaps most important, draw on your own inner resources and tell friends and loved ones outside work about your difficult boss. Get clear in your own head about your personal competence. Those tactics have worked for me. If I know it’s the boss who has the problem, I can brush off the abusive comments and just focus on my work. And it helps to have a sense of humor.

Shared by Richard Eaton of 


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