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Oklahoma State University

I abuse you, but I can’t help it: Supervisor abuse and deviant employee behavior explained

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rebecca Greenbaum, associate professor of management, Oklahoma State University

Have you ever wondered why your boss is acting like a jerk to you? Are you a high-performing deviant in a bottom-line focused workplace? You’re automatically subject to more abuse than your peers, says research.

Oklahoma State University associate professor of management Rebecca Greenbaum’s research, “I Just Can’t Control Myself: A Self-Regulation Perspective on the Abuse of Deviant Employees,” takes a different approach to understanding abusive supervision in the workplace. By considering two perspectives (deviance from subordinates prompting abuse vs. a social exchange of deviance), Greenbaum finds that any supervisor can become abusive, and high-performing deviant employees will take more abuse.

“Most abusive supervision literature to date focuses on a desire to retaliate in response to deviant behaviors. For example, ‘you treated me badly so I’m going to treat you badly,’ but our research shows that deviant behavior prompts an inability to control abusive urges,” Greenbaum says. “Just about any supervisor can become abusive because of a depletion in their sense of self control.”

As for high-performing deviant employees, bottom-line mentality and supervisor expectations play a big role in the amount of abuse received. It’s a confusing situation for the supervisor: they expect more from a high performer, but when the employee engages in deviant behavior, the supervisor loses more self-control, leading to more abuse.

“The supervisors don’t expect these high-performing employees to engage in deviant behavior, so it wears on the supervisor more,” Greenbaum says. “Pair employee deviance with a supervisor’s bottom-line mentality, and supervisors get more irritated and engage in more abusive supervision. They don’t have it in them anymore to keep it together because the employee’s deviant behaviors detract from bottom-line expectations.”

The “real-world” application? Organizations can do more to help their supervisors retain self-control resources, which would gear management with the necessary tools to combat supervisor abuse.

“The goal was to show that anyone can become an abusive type of supervisor,” Greenbaum says. “Practitioners can offer more training to help their supervisors deal with deviant employees and lead to a better management style.”

The research samples were collected using experience sampling methodology. Supervisors and subordinates completed daily surveys across four time periods and took into account sex, race and age variables. The results supported Greenbaum and colleagues’ hypothesis that employees that engage in deviance provoke their own abuse through the negative effects they have on their supervisor’s self-regulatory resources.

“Our research highlights the importance of adopting a self-regulation perspective to understand abusive supervision as an unintentional, non-deliberate response to subordinate deviance,” Greenbaum says. “Simply, supervisors engage in abusive behavior when dealing with deviant behavior because they cannot control themselves.”

Greenbaum and colleague’s article was accepted for publication into the Academy of Management Journal and is currently in press.

To read the abstract of this research, visit 

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