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Why Mean Bosses Get Nice After Lashing Out


hile it may ruin your day when your boss yells at you, new research indicates that it can also ruin theirs, leading to behavioral changes that flip their attitudes at work.

New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology takes prior workplace studies, which focused primarily on the impact abusive bosses have on their employees, and refocuses the lens to see how the bosses respond to their own abusive behavior.

“Based on prior research, it wasn’t clear whether supervisors even realized when they were abusive toward others,” says Russ Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. “However, some bosses realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it. This motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective leader behaviors.”

Johnson’s research was built around the theory of moral cleansing, and how supervisors keep their moral compass, or their conscience, clean.

“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 says. “Abusive behavior weakens leaders’ moral credit. To try to compensate for their wrongdoings, they show behavior to make reparations and amends toward abused staff.”

To collect data on workplace dynamics and moral cleansing, Johnson and his colleagues conducted separate surveys for supervisors and direct reports at different times of the day. The surveys asked bosses to evaluate their own abusive behavior, and then asked employees about their bosses’ willingness and determination to make reparations.

“In addition to feeling guilty after engaging in their own abusive behavior, the supervisors felt as though they lost ‘moral credit.’ To build that credit back up, they showed types of sympathetic, supportive, and reparative behaviors toward their employees,” Johnson says.

Additionally, Johnson explains that leaders who worked in a place where moral and ethical values were salient or top-of-mind, supervisors would be more attentive to their own behavior and experience guilt when they act abusively. This is because supervisors who work in such ethical environments would be more sensitive to their own abusive behavior and more likely to engage in cleansing behaviors following abusive acts.

Johnson says that if a workforce goal is to create healthy workplaces and to reduce abusive supervisory behavior, then the focus should be on supervisors and understanding why they engage in such acts as well as how it affects them. Only then can we start to create contexts that discourage such abuse from happening, he says.

To help combat abusive bosses, Johnson says that engaging employees and their supervisors in constructive conversations could open to doors to a more empathetic environment where bosses would be more aware of their actions, and subsequently feel the guilt that elicits a moral cleanse.

“The positive takeaway is that our research suggests that some supervisors realize when they have been abusive toward their subordinates and feel guilty about it, which motivates them to repair the relationship by engaging in more appropriate and effective task and person-oriented leader behaviors,” he says.

Source: Caroline Brooks for Michigan State University

This article was originally published in Futurity. Edits have been made to this republication. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

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