How abusive leadership affects employees

Research focusing on the US and South Korea shows the mitigating effects of toxic leaders on employees and their initiative to act.
By: | November 2, 2023

Employees are often affected by the type of leaders that lead them. But how much does bad leadership affect employees?  Research conducted by the Stevens Institute of Technology and University of Illinois sought to explain how abusive leadership reduces employee performance.
Surveying US students and employees from 42 different South Korean companies, researchers conducted the study to explore how abusive supervision impacted employees feeling empowered to take action. The hypothesis, as explained by Howie Xu, Assistant Professor of Management at Stevens Institute, as well as one of the authors of the study, was that the drive to obtain rewards (promotion, bonuses) and the drive to avoid punishments (maintain job security) would shape the way employees respond to abusive bosses. Yet, Xu and his team found that the opposite held true: employees that placed career advancement as a priority were strongly affected by abusive leadership, as they tended to “hunker down and reduce taking-charge behaviour after experiencing abusive supervision.”

Calling the findings surprising, Xu said that there was clear evidence that abusive leadership affected employees who care about advancement more than employees who cared about security. He theorised that the results stemmed from employees who want to advance believing that their managers had direct control over monetary and promotional opportunities, but less direct control over firing decisions. This was something reflected in the results from both South Korea and the US, showing that there was no real difference in how employees responded to abusive bosses in either country.

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Xu suggested that organisations should prioritise empowering employees and making them feel valued and appreciated, rather than placating employees about their job security. “If a leader slips into abusive behaviour, our research suggests that they should not only apologise, but also work to reassure employees of their value to the organisation,” Xu said.