A Preliminary Model of Abusive Behavior in Organizations

By Valle, Matthew | Southern Business Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Preliminary Model of Abusive Behavior in Organizations


Valle, Matthew, Southern Business Review


In this season of continuing financial turmoil and organizational discontent, individuals are coming to realize that organizational life often consists of roughly equal portions of good and bad. The "dark side" of organizational life, in which power serves to constrain, deny, and demoralize, lurks just beneath the surface of every organization, waiting for just the right moment to rear its ugly head. In light of the recent continuing revelations of wrongdoing by once trusted business professionals and organizations, researchers are increasingly turning their attentions to the negative aspects of power use (e.g., Aquino & Byron, 2002; Lubit, 2o02), a development that many conclude is long overdue (e.g., Duffy, Ganster, & Pagon, 2002).

One manifestation of negative power use is the concept of abusive supervision (Tepper, 2000). Abusive supervision would appear to be an element of power use within organizations expressly designed to create a negative environment between supervisor and subordinate. It is, perhaps, a subset of what Powell (1998) referred to in his theory of "the abusive organization."

More specifically, abusive supervision is defined as the "sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors..." (Tepper, 2000, 178). Of course, just what constitutes abuse is in the eye of the beholder (e.g., Cropanzano, Howes, Grandy, & Toth, 1997; Ferris & Kacmar, 1992). Bies (2000) described abusive supervision as consisting of public criticism, loud and angry tantrums, rudeness, inconsiderate actions, and coercion. Ashforth (1997) described abusive behavior by supervisors as "petty tyranny" and Neuman and Baron (1997) described nonphysical workplace aggression as components of abusive supervision. The concept of abusive supervision is multidimensional and may subsume many related, but conceptually distinct, forms of deviant organizational behavior. The form of the abuse may be verbal or nonverbal, hostile or mildly irritating. Regardless of its form or the operational definition one could use to describe abuse within the supervisor-subordinate dyad, the outcomes of abusive behavior cannot be beneficial for the target individual(s).

Ashforth (1997) found that tyrannical supervision led to frustration, helplessness, and alienation from work. Tepper (2000) found abusive supervision associated with lower job and life satisfaction, lower normative and affective commitment, work-family conflict, and increased job stress. Richman, Flaherty, Rospenda, and Christensen (1992) found abusive supervision led to increased dissatisfaction and increased job stress. Duffy et al. (2002) found social undermining (a form of abusive supervision) led to negative outcomes for individuals. As interesting and as useful as these investigations are, no one has yet offered any rationale for the existence of abusive behavior. As such, this research seeks to support the ongoing examination of abusive supervision and to extend the theory by providing a number of possible antecedent causes of abusive behavior in organizations. Figure 1 describes a preliminary model of the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of abusive supervision.

Since abusive supervision is a construct that describes relations between a supervisor and subordinate, or a supervisor and many subordinates, this research investigates the antecedents to that relationship more closely. Specifically, by identifying the general working relationship between supervisor and subordinate (e.g., supervisor-subordinate relations), it may be possible to predict the extent to which the supervisor would engage in abusive supervision. If the general working relationship described by the subordinate were positive, abusive behavior on the part of the supervisor would be an unlikely occurrence. On the other hand, abusive behavior might be a more likely consequence of a negative working relationship between supervisor and subordinate. Further, identifying and defining the power distance associated with the relationship (e. …

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