Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business

Combative bosses repeat bad childhood treatment, research shows


CLEMSON — If you know of a workplace supervisor who yells, insults or is generally abusive to employees, chances are they were treated similarly as a child, according to research by business school professors at Clemson University.

Clemson research shows abusive bosses repeating their childhood experiences.

Tom Zagenczyk and Kristin Scott, associate professors in the Department of Management at Clemson, collaborated with three other researchers on the study, which surveyed approximately 190 supervisor/subordinate pairs working in a retail environment.

The study asked supervisory employees how often before 18 years of age they were subjected to criticism, yelling, insults or given the silent treatment. Research showed supervisors who reported being undermined growing up tended to have subordinates who said their supervisors exhibited abusive tendencies.

“We learn by watching other people and tend to enact that behavior ourselves,” Zagenczyk said. “What one experiences as an adolescent is oftentimes played out in their personal and professional lives as adults and the likelihood of that happening is higher in supervisors with low self-control.”

Zagenczyk said negative emotions experienced during adolescence don’t just go away. They often are manifested in adulthood through displaced aggression.

“Displaced aggression is a very common reaction for those whose adolescence was tumultuous. People who have aggressive, demeaning parents believe that type of behavior is acceptable and model after them,” Zagenczyk said. “It’s very common for individuals to aggress against others, such as co-workers, instead of against the source of their anger — often a supervisor — because co-workers cannot sanction them for their behavior. Thus, it is a convenient way to release negative emotions.”

Dealing with demeaning supervisory behavior generally is not a quick fix for an organization and often long-term interventions are needed to address these deep-seated behaviors, Zagenczyk said.

“These are behavioral habits that people have learned over the years, maybe decades. Just telling them there’s a problem isn’t going to change their behavior. Therapy might be the best approach for a person coming to grips with this dysfunction and oftentimes it’s a long process,” he said.

But Zagenczyk added the costs of long-term interventions may be justified because deviant behavior by managers has a trickle-down effect that can poison an organization’s culture and be quite costly from a financial perspective as well.

“Oftentimes a team, department or person within an organization determines what type of behavior is acceptable. In an environment where bad behavior is not punished — or even rewarded — employees learn that the only way to get things done and be successful is through bad behavior, and that does not promote a healthy work culture.”

Joining Zagenczyk and Scott in the research were Christian Kiewitz, University of Dayton; Simon Lloyd D. Restubog, University of New South Wales; Patrick Raymund James M. Garcia, Australian National University, Canberra; and Robert L. Tang, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, Philippines.

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