Break the cycle

How abusive leaders create a toxic work culture.

By Min-Hsuan Tu

Not all bosses are good leaders.

Min-Hsuan Tu, Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Resources, University at Buffalo School of Management

Many of us have seen or worked with abusive bosses who yell at their employees, inappropriately blame them or take credit for their work. Abuse like this is common in the workplace—27% of Americans reported experiencing abuse at work, while another 21% have witnessed it. Workplace abuse mostly comes from people at a higher position than the victim, so it’s no surprise many employees leave their jobs to get away from their bosses. 

At the same time, many successful leaders are infamous for bad behavior. For example, Bob Knight, a former NCAA basketball coach, is well-known for his cruel treatment, including pushing, humiliating and threatening players. Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, believed a tough and brutal leadership style can bring benefits. As star performers, Knight and Jobs were often praised by the popular press, cast as role models whose leadership behaviors might be viewed as tough love rather than abusive. But for both of them, abuse seemed key to their success. 

Indeed, some people agree. They believe abuse can be a way to motivate employees and enhance performance, that a leader’s bullying behavior is a form of organizational politics that facilitates positive outcomes. In fact, research has found that when employees view their leaders’ abusive behaviors as a strategy to push for better performance, they are more likely to accept the abuse—and, as a result, emulate the same abusive behaviors with their subordinates. Similarly, in one of my research studies, my co-authors and I found some new leaders are more likely to view their abusive leaders as role models if those leaders are high performers. In turn, these new leaders become the next generation of abusive leaders—even though they were once victims themselves

Therefore, while most of us would agree and support that organizations should create an abuse-free environment, we might actually tolerate and accept abusive leaders more often than we think. So, does abuse really boost success? One study did find that a moderate level of abusive supervision increases employees’ creativity, while little or too much abuse hurts creativity.

However, many more studies have demonstrated that abuse is harmful to victims, teams and organizations. Having an abusive boss makes work miserable. Victims of abuse perform poorly, have higher intention to quit their job, engage in counterproductive behaviors and suffer from health issues. In addition, abusive supervision reduces team productivity and harms firm performance. Worst of all, as we’ve seen, abuse spills over. When people are abused by their supervisors, they are more likely to treat their subordinates the same way. In their anger and frustration, they also lash out toward innocent bystanders, including their family. While abusive bosses might justify their behavior with expectations of success, abuse actually causes far more harm than potential benefits.

OK, if abusing and instilling fear in employees does not necessarily improve their performance, do abusive leaders gain personal benefits from their own behaviors? One study shows leaders who have “dark traits”—such as psychopathy and narcissism—are more likely to get to the top of the corporate ladder, suggesting that being tough and abusive might help with career advancement. However, any success comes at a steep cost, even for abusive leaders, who suffer from their own behaviors. Studies have shown abusive leaders are aware of their behaviors and, thus, feel guilty. Moreover, in my research, our team found that when leaders abuse their power, they suffer at home in the evening, feeling less relaxed and a reduced sense of well-being. 

Clearly, abusive leaders are too dangerous to keep. As my co-authors and I concluded in our research, “When successful, high-performing leaders are allowed to abuse because they are ‘too valuable to lose,’ organizations create a fertile environment for abuse to grow.” These successful leaders signal to others that abuse may be a viable path to success, so we tolerate their behavior and accept their influence. But in truth, abuse brings limited benefits and much greater harm—to the victims, their teams, the organization and even the perpetrators. As managers, we need to understand the detrimental nature of abusive supervision and help create a positive work environment free of abuse.

Min-Hsuan Tu is an assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. With a PhD from the University of Florida, Tu teaches organizational behavior and human resource management, and conducts research focusing on power and leader mistreatment in the workplace, with the ultimate goal of finding simple and helpful techniques to develop better leaders and high-quality employee relationships.

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