top of page

An Examination of Abusive Supervision at the Workplace

Updated: Aug 25

Author(s): Xuan Nhu Truong

Work is an important part of our life. We spend most of our time at work, which becomes a part of our daily routine. For this reason, our work life, which includes working environment and conditions, can create positive and negative impacts on our health. In reality, many people do not have a satisfying work life. There are various factors that can contribute to a dissatisfied work life such as workload, coworkers, wages, working hours, supervisors, and so on. Out of the mentioned factors, the one factor that needs to be strongly examined is the relationship between employees and supervisors. According to Kim et al. (2019), an important key that contributes to a healthy work life is the relationship between subordinates and supervisors, as it determines the performance, innovation, and turnover rate of employees. Unfortunately, many people have encountered bad management at some point in their work life where abusive supervision is a common theme. Abusive supervision is defined as how subordinates view their supervisors’ continuous display of inappropriate, harsh, nonphysical behaviours (Whitman et al., 2014, p. 38). It is the long-term use of abusive acts toward subordinates such as publicly criticizing and shaming them, threatening them, and so on, which leads to the deterioration of subordinates’ physical and mental wellbeing (Peltokorpi & Ramaswami, 2021, p. 894). To further understand abusive supervision and how it negatively impacts employees’ wellbeing, it is essential to study research on the motives of supervisors’ abusive behaviours, the way that abusive supervision affects employees’ lives, and the potential approaches to limit abusive supervision at the workplace.

By studying the motives of supervisors’ abusive behaviours, it enables us to understand the potential triggers that initiate the behaviours, with the hope that it assists us to establish solutions to reduce the deviant acts. In reality, management positions are a fairly challenging position in which one has many responsibilities and is accountable for many things. Supervisors are often faced with high expectations, tight deadlines, overtime work, and lack of resources. Moreover, it is definitely not easy to manage people as everyone has different ways of thinking, values, personalities, and different paces in learning things. Therefore, according to Lam et al. (2017), abusive supervision could be supervisors’ reaction to the extreme stressful working environment that makes them emotionally exhausted, which leads to the use of abusive acts. However, Lam et al. (2017) also argue that not all supervisors who experience emotional exhaustion would commit abusive acts, and not all employees are abused by supervisors who are emotionally exhausted. The authors applied conservation of resources to further examine the motives. Conservation of resources proposes that people are driven to acquire, keep, and protect resources that are valuable; therefore, when faced with resource shortages, they attempt to guard their remaining resources by avoiding further resource expenditure (Lam et al., 2017, p. 1152). What this means is that when an employee is not meeting expectations in their performance, instead of providing more training or valuable feedback to the employee, the supervisor decides to use threatening words or harsh criticisms with the hope that the employee would improve their work. In addition, Lam et al. (2017) also found that there is a tendency of emotionally exhausted supervisors to selectively abuse perceived underperforming subordinates, especially when the supervisors have low level of self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is the ability of an individual to show high quality of self control in which when faced with resource shortages, one is still inclined to maintain resource investments (Lam et al., 2017, p. 1154). This implies that under circumstances of resource shortages, supervisors who are emotionally exhausted with high levels of self-monitoring are not prone to exhibit abusive acts, whereas emotionally exhausted supervisors with low level of self-monitoring are more likely to commit such behaviours (Lam et al., 2017). In contrast to Lam et al.’s work, Kim et al. (2019) examine abusive supervision from employees’ point of view using the leader-member exchange concept. The motive behind supervisors’ abusive supervision, according to Kim et al. (2019), is highly linked to the relationship between the supervisors and the employees. Employees who have high LMX perceive their supervisors’ acts as performance-promotion with the intention to improve their performance, and they would also try to fit the abusive acts to supervisors’ disposition by justifying it as it is the way he or she is, or that it is their personality (Kim et al., 2019, p. 489). Regardless of how they want to rationalize it, this certainly destroys the relationship between the employees and their supervisors. In another study, Lyubykh et al. (2022) found that supervisors tend to criticize employees for their poor performance rather than blaming it on external factors such as technical factors. Supervisors believe that it is the employees’ lack of attentiveness that causes them to perform poorly, causing the supervisors to use abusive supervisory (Lyubykh et al., 2022, p. 137). For example, when a person repeatedly makes mistakes in doing their tasks at work, it automatically makes supervisors think that the person is either not understanding the task, do not care about their job, or is irresponsible. This then affects the supervisors’ and the team’s performance, which leads them to micromanage the employees or give them harsh criticisms to relieve frustration.

Abusive supervision is a deviant act that creates many negative impacts in the lives and wellbeing of employees. One of the obvious impacts is the act of job withdrawal. When facing an unpleasant conflict or situation, people tend to avoid being associated with the situation or the person that triggers it. In this case, when employees perceive that they are being abused, it leads them to have negative or unpleasant feelings about the job and the supervisors. As a result, they try to withdraw from the job to reduce their interaction with their supervisors (Kim et al., 2019, p. 477). Similarly, Whitman et al. (2014) suggest that abusive supervision creates an unpleasant environment and makes the victims feel helpless and out of control. Under such circumstances, the victims will try to avoid their supervisors to cope with the situation. This means there will be more sick calls, more mistakes made, and less effort at work. On the other hand, Liu et al. (2021) found that even though it is likely that abused employees would react to the abuse with bad feelings, attitudes, and behaviours, if the employees possess great levels of moral identification, they will restrict themselves from doing that since such behaviours are against their self-concept. Abusive supervision also affects how employees view their job. When people encounter long-term exposure to such treatment, the job becomes a negative stressor that damages people’s physical and mental health (Peltokorpi et al., 2021, p. 896). For example, abusive supervision can change the way subordinates view themselves and reduce their abilities to balance their work life and family life (Carlson et al., 2012, p. 856). The worst-case scenario is they may take their frustration out on their family members, since they cannot express their opinions on the issue due to their lower status or the fear of resentment from supervisors (Carlson et al., 2012, p. 856).

To limit supervisors’ abusive supervision, it is essential for companies to consider communicating more with supervisors regarding their working conditions, workload, and concerns to lower the chances of them being emotionally exhausted (Lam et al., 2017, p. 1161). Additionally, companies should encourage supervisors to develop high levels of self-monitoring. They can create basic workshops or modules on essential management skills to improve and train supervisors on supervision knowledge and skills. Another potential solution to reduce the deviant acts is to engage employees in feedback surveys regarding their direct supervisors, where their feedback is kept confidentially, which allows them to express their honest concerns and feelings without feeling afraid of stigmatization, discrimination, or job loss.

Abusive supervision is a serious issue that is detrimental and needs to be addressed, acknowledged, and limited by organizations. COR theory indicates that the possible motives of supervisors’ abusive supervision is due to the emotional exhaustion from work that triggers supervisors to commit aggressive behaviours toward their underperforming subordinates to defend further resource losses. This is definitely true when the emotionally exhausted supervisors also possess low levels of self-motoring. However, it is also important to examine the issue from employees’ perceptions as many abused subordinates who have good relationships with their supervisors often attempt to justify the hostile acts by associating them with supervisors’ disposition or the idea of performance-promotion. Likewise, supervisors tend to blame subordinates for their underperformance instead of looking at external factors. Altogether, this can negatively affect employees’ wellbeing and cause them to react negatively such as withdrawing from the job and avoiding feedback. Hence, it is best for companies to take this issue seriously and emphasize the need to have zero tolerance for such behaviours.


Carlson, D., Ferguson, M., Hunter, E., & Whitten, D. (2012). Abusive supervision and work–family conflict: The path through emotional labor and burnout. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(5), 849–859.

Kim, K. Y., Atwater, L., Latheef, Z., & Zheng, D. (2019). Three Motives for Abusive Supervision: The Mitigating Effect of Subordinates Attributed Motives on Abusive Supervision’s Negative Outcomes. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 26(4), 476–494.

Lam, C. K., Walter, F., & Huang, X. (2017). Supervisors’ emotional exhaustion and abusive supervision: The moderating roles of perceived subordinate performance and supervisor self‐monitoring. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(8), 1151–1166.

Liu, C., Yang, J., Liu, J., & Zhu, L. (2021). The effect of abusive supervision on employee deviant behaviors: an identity-based perspective. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 32(4), 948–978.

Lyubykh, Z., Bozeman, J., Hershcovis, M. S., Turner, N., & Shan, J. V. (2022). Employee performance and abusive supervision: The role of supervisor over‐attributions. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 43(1), 125–145.

Peltokorpi, V., & Ramaswami, A. (2021). Abusive supervision and subordinates’ physical and mental health: the effects of job satisfaction and power distance orientation. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 32(4), 893–919.

Whitman, M. V., Halbesleben, J. R. B., & Holmes, O. (2014). Abusive supervision and feedback avoidance: The mediating role of emotional exhaustion. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(1), 38–53.

13 views0 comments
bottom of page