Verbal Abuse in the Workplace Results in Employees Acting Out

A recent study by a San Francisco State University organizational psychologist looked at the behavior of employees who were verbally abused by their supervisors. The study focused not necessarily on the abuse itself, but rather on the subsequent behavior of the employees. “We didn’t just focus on how these workers felt or whether they started to dislike their jobs more,” said Kevin Eschleman, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State. “We looked at consequences that actually affect the bottom line of an organization.” The researchers were surprised to see just how much subversive behavior the employees partook in, regardless of the intent of the mistreatment.

The study gathered work data from 268 full-time employees from a variety of fields. These employees were selected from a group of more than 80,000 people who filled out an online survey. They were first asked about what type of verbal abuse they received and how often it occurred. A month later, the researchers asked the participants if they took part in any behavior that might be seen as counterproductive.

One of the interesting discoveries in the results was that even employees who experienced a motivational type of abuse, still participated in subversive activities. Oftentimes, especially in military or medical fields, supervisors feel they need to use “tough love” – as one might expect from a football coach – to motivate employees to work hard. Many authority figures feel they need to be hard on their workers in order to drive their productivity. But as Eschleman points out, workers may see any kind of abuse as a “violation of how they expect to be treated.” He goes on to say, “I think there are a lot of supervisors who believe that this could be an effective way to lead, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case for a lot of people. In general, a lot of people are going to respond negatively.”

When employees admitted to acting out at work, this included activities such as taking longer lunch breaks, talking negatively about their supervisors and the company in general, being less productive at work, and even stealing. The researchers noted that this behavior was not only detrimental to those guilty of the abuse, but rather it was often harmful to the company as a whole. To this point, Eschleman said, “Supervisors are often the face of a company, and so their behavior really kind of implies the company’s values. So it’s not just that they would target the person who’s treating them poorly or abusively, but that they’re going to target the organization that’s allowing that to happen.”

The researchers concluded that these employees were not behaving in such a way in order to purposefully harm the company. In other words, there was generally no malice associated with their conduct. But rather, this backlash is more of a form of release, of venting. It is much less a retaliation and more of a coping mechanism.

Any type of abuse in the workplace, even if it is done in the name of motivation, should not be tolerated. It’s detrimental for employees, and for employers, as well. If you want to discuss this further, please contact me at stephen@pfeifferphd.com or at my website www.pfeifferphd.com.

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