Abusing your employees won’t pay off for too long, a new study says
Being an abusive boss can boost your well-being, according to a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal — but all that demeaning and demoralizing starts to negatively affect your mental health after about a week.
Jerk behavior helped supervisors “save” mental energy that would’ve been channeled toward suppressing the urge to be abusive, the Michigan State University research on workers in the U.S. and China found, giving them a feeling of recovery. But after a week or less, employees started showing their brutish bosses less support, trust and productivity.
“The moral of the story is that although abuse may be helpful and even mentally restorative for supervisors in the short-term, over the long haul it will come back to haunt them,” study co-author and workplace psychology expert Russell Johnson said in a statement.
Say you’ve identified this problem in yourself: How do you shed your abusive M.O.? Here’s what experts said.
Understand why it’s important not to be a jerk. It can feel cathartic to lash out at subordinates in stressful situations, said Dorie Clark, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business — and bosses may convince themselves their anger has higher purpose because they’re frustrated with bad performance. “They justify their bad behavior by telling themselves it’s an instructional tool,” Clark told Moneyish. “But the truth is, anyone — whether we’re talking about a parent raising a child or a boss supervising employees — does better, generally, when they’re in a supportive environment rather than a hypercritical environment.”
Replace the behavior. Lashing out may help you release stress and tension, Clark said, “so you need to find a different way to do that.” “If you feel like you’re hitting a boiling point, instead of going out into the hallway and lashing out at any employee near you, (try) going to the gym and jogging for an hour on the treadmill” so that when you return, you’ll be in a calmer, more rational place, she said.
Respond, don’t react. Step away from the situation, take a deep breath and try to change your mindset, leadership and business strategist Christina Holloway told Moneyish. Ask yourself what exactly happened and how you can respond appropriately. “It removes the quick response of using your reptilian brain, which was just going to push back fast and hard,” she said.
Tell employees what you want, not what you don’t want, said Holloway. And using positive reinforcement instead of leading with the negative can go a long way: “The more people feel they’re contributing, the more they feel like they have skin in the game or they feel like when a project is completed, they can say, ‘I did this part’ … the more they’re going feel like they belong and they’re going to cooperate more,” she said.
Look for management role models. If you’ve come up in a dysfunctional organization, you may never have had a strong role model in dealing with employees during times of conflict, Clark said. So seek out a mentor — this might be an executive coach or another leader within the company — and model his or her behavior. “Ask them questions; role play things so that you can learn alternative scenarios — so that yelling no longer seems like the only option,” she said.
Make small corrections instead of having one big blowup. Don’t wait until your employee wraps up a three-month-long project to tell her you wanted it done a different way, Holloway said. “That’s a very long amount of time to assign something to somebody and then not check in with them,” she said. Ask how the project is progressing every month or every couple of weeks and see if the employee has encountered any obstacles or needs help.
Hold yourself accountable. “If you have been a cranky or querulous boss, you might want to change genuinely — but we often fall back on our old patterns without realizing it,” said Clark. You might announce publicly to employees that you’ve realized the error of your ways and are making an effort to change, and invite them to point out when they see you reverting to your old behavior. You could also find an external accountability partner — a colleague within or outside the company — with whom you carry out quick weekly check-ins on your respective goals’ progress.
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