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Commentary: The perils of associating with abusive bosses

Imagine working with an abusive boss who yells at you unreasonably, makes condescending remarks to humiliate you in front of colleagues, and speaks to you in a hostile manner. How would you react?

Furthermore, stigma-by-association can operate automatically without deliberate information processing. That is, observers may unconsciously experience negative emotions when they observe coworkers getting along well with an abusive supervisor.

Interestingly, such stigma is evident even in the absence of any meaningful relationships.

Our study revealed that merely sitting next to an abusive boss in a meeting can make employees appear to be less ethical and trustworthy. This means that even an unplanned encounter with an abusive boss in the cafeteria could damage one’s social image.

Employees who are perceived as voluntarily associating with an abusive boss face stronger stigma than those whose association is seen as involuntary.

In such relationships, voluntary motive signals the employee’s allegiance to the abusive boss’ ideology, thereby exacerbating the adverse impacts of association.

In contrast, perceived involuntary association with an abusive boss signals to observers that employees do not necessarily share and agree with the boss’ values, making the negative impact of stigma-by-association less salient.

As such, employees should be aware that building high-quality relationships with abusive bosses leads to stigma-by-association, but they can mitigate this stigma by displaying involuntary motives or showing that their close association is built due to involuntary circumstances.

INTERVENTIONS FOR ASSOCIATIVE STIGMA IN THE WORKPLACE

The delicate interplay between abusive supervision and employee relationships sheds light on the complexities of workplace dynamics and their far-reaching implications.

The negative consequences engendered by association with abusive bosses highlight the need for employees as well as organisations to mitigate the effects of abusive leadership.

Fellow colleagues could show support and empathy for abused co-workers by speaking up for them or lending a listening ear. Instead of being bystanders, they should strive to be part of the support system.

At the same time, they should be mindful of their implicit biases to prevent misjudgment of the victims’ character.

Organisations could strengthen the support system and prioritise the well-being of employees, including those who have suffered emotional harm from abusive supervision or its unintended consequences.

Resources such as counselling services or well-being workshops can go a long way towards aiding in their mental health recovery and rebuilding trust among colleagues.

Additionally, organisations should establish safe and confidential reporting channels for employees to voice their concerns, such as workplace bullying or other problems that they face at work.

These reporting channels should be made accessible and responsive, with appropriate actions taken promptly to investigate reports and address issues.

By encouraging and empowering employees to speak up, organisations can nip workplace issues in the bud and protect the well-being of their workforce.

Organisations can also go a step further by promoting accountable leadership. It is worthwhile for them to invest in training and development programmes that emphasise effective leadership practices, to ensure that leaders do not perpetuate abusive behaviour.

Given that an organisation’s culture is primarily shaped by the values upheld by its leaders, unethical values will result in the perpetuation of a toxic culture that not only impedes overall well-being, but also drives away talented employees.

By promoting accountable leadership, organisations can equip supervisors with the skills and knowledge necessary to foster a safe and respectful workplace.

In other words, it should never be the employees’ responsibility to reconcile their relationship with an abusive boss. In fact, doing so will indirectly cause more harm to these employees beyond the psychological pressure that they might experience when interacting with abusive leaders.

By providing robust support systems, tapping on reporting channels, and promoting accountable leadership, both employees and organisations can work in tandem to cultivate a healthy work environment where all employees feel safe and respected.

It is only through such concerted efforts and a commitment to improve that organisations can foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and mutual respect.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Yan Liuxin is a PhD candidate with the Department of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. Sam Yam Kai Chi is the Provost’s Chair Professor of Management and Head of the Department of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School.

The opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.

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