November 11, 2014
As if this needed more confirmation, there’s increasing evidence that an unhealthy management culture harms efforts to create a well-functioning team. For example, a new study from Michigan State University finds that abusive managers create tremendous conflict for work teams and damage productivity, not to mention morale and commitment.
I’ve often written about the need to understand unhealthy leadership within the larger context of a company’s management culture — not just as an issue of individual leaders’ personalities or pathologies. For example, I’ve described how unhealthy management and an unhealthy leadership culture are intertwined; and ways that subordinates can deal with them.
This new study, conducted in China and the United States, suggests the toxic effect of nonphysical abuse by a supervisor is much broader than believed. Lead investigator Crystal Farh said supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another. “That’s the most disturbing finding,” Farh said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study pointed out that companies have tended to focus on abused employees and efforts restore self-esteem. That matches my own observations, and underscores the need to address how and why abusive and otherwise unhealthy leaders and leadership cultures arise and thrive to begin with.
The study looked at nonphysical abuse such as verbal mistreatment and demeaning emails. Employees who directly experienced such abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team. At the same time, the entire team “descended into conflicts,” Farh said, which also reduced worker contributions. “Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” Farh said, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them.”