As a boss, one of your prime responsibilities is setting a good example for your staff, but it doesn’t hurt to remember that if your employees are inspired to emulate your good traits, they might follow your bad ones too.
According to a new study by Michigan State University (MSU), supervisors who are abusive to individual employees can actually throw the entire work team into conflict by encouraging such behaviour.
The study, conducted in China and the United States, highlighted that bosses who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviours, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another.
Crystal Farh, lead investigator of the study, and assistant professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business, said the findings could likely be explained by social learning theory, in which people learn and then model behaviour based on observing others – in this case, the boss.
“That’s the most disturbing finding, because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not,” Farh said.
For the study, Farh and Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia, studied 51 teams of employees from 10 firms in China and 300 employees from the US. The average team size was about six workers and the teams performed a variety of functions including customer service, technical support and research and development.
The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. It highlighted that employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team.
At the same time, the entire team “descended into conflicts,” which also reduced worker contributions.
“Teams characterised by relationship conflict, are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them,” Farh added.
The report concluded that these findings have implications for companies which wish to rehabilitate those employees who have suffered leadership abuse. These include fixing the team’s interpersonal relationships amongst others, Farh said.
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