High-flier bosses getting away with abuse

Abusive bosses dismissed as tough love - Newsreel
New research shows abusive bosses who are otherwise high performers are typically tolerated by staff. | Photo: Mango Studios (iStock)

Workers are reluctant to call out the behaviour of abusive bosses if the leader is considered a high performer.

Researchers from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business studied responses from 576 employees across different industries.

They found the ways employees rated bosses who displayed abusive behaviour depended on whether the bosses were otherwise considered good at their jobs.

Bosses who were considered high performers generally had some level of abuse dismissed as “tough love”. Poorly regarded leaders who ridiculed or belittled employees were more likely to be labelled as abusers.

The disparity seemed to be connected to whether the workers believed the boss could be useful to boost their careers.

“If employees see their boss as a successful leader, that seems to be incompatible with being abusive,” study lead author Robert Lount said. “So they label the abuse as something more positive, like ‘tough love.’”

The study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, was based on online surveys completed three times, two weeks apart. Participants were asked about abusive behaviours by their boss, and how they would rate their leader’s overall effectiveness.

In the survey, tough love bosses were described as “stern but caring,” “insensitive but nurturing” and “rough but well-meaning.”

Study co-author Bennett Tepper, said employees may be looking for a silver lining of sorts.

“These bosses may treat employees harshly, but presumably their intent is to help their followers realize their potential,” Professor Tepper said.

“And if the leaders have high performance, that suggests they are successful at bringing out the skills of their followers.”

Professors Lount and Tepper said the study did not suggest abusive behaviour could make some leaders successful.

“There is overwhelming evidence from years of research that abusive leadership is not good for employees or organisations,” they said in the study report.

“In fact, other research suggests that successful bosses known for their ‘tough love’ approach might be even more successful if they used more accepted management techniques.”

The full report can be found on the Ohio State University website.