Organizational Culture

Abusive Supervisors Lead to Organizational Deviance!

Abusive supervision describes the hostile actions of managers toward their subordinates. Though “abuse” may conger images of physical violence, it is not included in the activities encompassed by the term – actions such as belittling, undermining, or yelling at subordinates are classic examples of abusive supervision. It should come as no surprise that victims of abusive supervision are likely to commit acts of organizational deviance – things like theft, sabotage, and the shirking of duties. But just how are these phenomena related? What is the link between abusive supervision and organizational deviance? What mitigating factors may be involved?

How organizational commitment is involved.

Employees are said to be committed to an organization when they have a sense of liking for and loyalty to their organization. Committed employees tend to behave in ways that are in the best interest of the organization, and frown upon activities detrimental to the organization’s success. Victims of abusive supervision are less likely to be committed to the organization, leading to a greater likelihood for committing acts of organizational deviance. They may hold the organization responsible for allowing their supervisor to behave in such a manner, believing that the organization does not care about its employees’ well-being.

How organizational norms are involved.

The informal rules employees have for each other’s behavior have a big effect on the likelihood of deviance committed by victims of abusive supervision. Employees look to each other for guidance in terms of what is acceptable, and the more employees there are committing deviant acts, the more acceptable that kind of behavior appears.

Pulling it all together.

In instances of abusive supervision where an employee has a low level of commitment to the organization, and coworker norms indicate approval of deviance, deviant behaviors are likely.

What can organizations do to combat deviance?

Some techniques for combating abusive supervision and organizational deviance include:
  • Discourage abusive supervision from the start.
Institute “zero-tolerance” policies stating abusive behaviors will not be tolerated, and those engaging in them will face consequences.
  • Demonstrate that employees are cared about.
Make it clear that employee contributions and concerns are a priority in order to engender commitment to the organization.
  • Discourage the development of norms approving of organizational deviance.
Enact codes of conduct which emphasize an ethical environment with penalties for non-compliance. Supervisors play a significant role in creating employee commitment to an organization. When subordinates are abused by their supervisors, they look to coworkers for support and behavioral guidance. If they see that deviant behaviors like theft and shirking are accepted, they are more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves.

Interpretation by:

Kathleen Melcher

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Tepper, B.J., Henle, C.A., Lambert, L.S., Giacalone, R.A., & Duffy, M.K. (2008). Abusive supervision and subordinates; organizational deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (4), 721-732.