Some abusive supervisors recognize their problematic behavior and feel guilty about it, recent research suggests — spurring them to ‘make reparations’
Your jerk boss may turn their frown upside down — and there’s an unexpected reason why.
Some abusive supervisors recognize their problematic behavior and feel guilty about it, according to recent research from Michigan State University — spurring them to mend fences by engaging in more constructive leadership behaviors later on. (Abusive workplace behavior is defined in the literature as a “sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact.”)
Study co-author Russ Johnson and his team focused on “moral cleansing,” or the concept of compensating for immoral decisions with moral ones.
Also read: Here’s how to stop being a jerk boss
“People often act as though they have a moral ledger or bank account, such that doing good deeds adds credit whereas bad deeds withdraws credit. When there is a shortfall of credits, they are motivated to engage in good deeds to restore a balance,” Johnson, an associate professor of management at MSU, said in a statement. “Abusive behavior weakens leaders’ moral credit. To try to compensate for their wrongdoings, they show behavior to make reparations and amends toward abused staff.”
In two field studies, the researchers administered surveys to bosses and employees, asking bosses to self-evaluate their abusive behavior and employees to weigh in on their bosses’ efforts to make amends. “In addition to feeling guilty after engaging in their own abusive behavior, the supervisors felt as though they lost ‘moral credit,’” Johnson said. “To build that credit back up, they showed types of sympathetic, supportive and reparative behaviors toward their employees.”
Those reparative actions include “person-oriented behaviors” including showing support and concern, the authors wrote, and “task-oriented behaviors” like giving accurate guidance and feedback — especially for leaders with “the moral courage to accept responsibility for their immoral acts.”
The present research, wrote the authors, sheds light on “how and when destructive leadership behaviors may, paradoxically, trigger more constructive behaviors.” And supervisors are likely to pay more attention to their conduct and feel guilty about abusive behavior in workplaces that give morality and ethics prominence, Johnson suggested.
Anywhere from 13% to 36% of U.S. employees work with a “dysfunctional leader,” according to a 2015 study. And aside from obvious day-to-day downsides to working for an abusive manager, research shows that bad bosses can impact family relationships and raise heart disease risk. Experiencing “uncivil incidents” at work, one New York Times op-ed argued, can also increase levels of glucocorticoid hormones — possibly leading to health outcomes like increased appetite and obesity.
Jerk bosses may benefit from replacing the negative behavior with a stress reliever like exercise; striving to respond rather than react; seeking out management role models; correcting employees along the way instead of having a big blowup; and enlisting an “external accountability partner” to keep from falling back on old patterns, experts previously told Moneyish.
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