By Nishat Babu
When talking about leadership, we tend to focus on positive forms such as transformational, servant, and ethical, and their encouraging effects on various employee outcomes. In recent times, we have started to acknowledge that matters of leadership are not always so idyllically straightforward. Instead, it is not uncommon for employees to experience aggression, intimidation, hostility and even bullying at the hands of their leader; which understandably results in a host of negative outcomes, not least for employee wellbeing. This hostile and reprehensible leadership is often referred to as abusive supervision, which has been linked to a multitude of negative outcomes within the organization (Mackey et al., 2017), such as but not limited to: employees wanting to leave the organization, reduced job satisfaction, work-family conflict and distress (Tepper, 2000). And in research I am currently conducting with colleagues, we have gone one step further to document the negative effects of abusive supervision for beyond the organization itself, in terms of social responsibility.
Here, I specifically want to bring attention to abusive supervision that is not consistently abusive across time. In fact, the inconsistency in leadership generally, and abusive supervision specifically, is gaining greater traction in research. I am talking about a leader who may be charming and seemingly supportive in some instances, but in other instances, hostile, intimidating, and cold. This is something many of us will be able to relate to, at the very least on a personal basis, with regards to unpleasant individuals encountered in life generally, even if not in respect to organizational leaders.
Drawing on a prior experience of my own, I recall a leader I previously worked with, who on one specific occasion invited me for a chat in their office, wanting to see how they could assist me in the role I had recently taken up. I left feeling supported and positive, only to find out later on that very same day, that they had condescendingly gossiped about our supposedly confidential talk, to a colleague who was only too happy to come back and share it with me. What is surprising is that we talk of employees engaging in gossip and its (often) negative ramifications, but do not pay the same attention to leaders who are also human and privy to the same shortcomings! However, there is a key difference when it comes to leaders, because their actions have much greater consequences owing to their position of power and authority over their followers.
My experience was not isolated – this leader was quite obviously duplicitous. They presented an image of someone who was a supportive leader, a seemingly outward advocate for the team they were leading, as well as hosting regular socials for the team and defending them. At the same time, they were gossiping about the employees they were leading, taking digs, and overall just making the lives of those they disliked more difficult. How does one cope with such a leader, given research has clearly indicated that consistency in leadership is important (Johnson et al., 2012)? It is difficult to ignore them given their seeming omnipresence in your work life, and it is not possible to confront them as doing so could lead to undesirable consequences for your work and long-term career prospects. In the above case, it led to a number of very competent individuals to leave the organization. Those remaining either continued to comply, or to play the political game and curry favor of this leader, which would lead to and eventually did for some, various lucrative benefits. Those who were not able to win this leader’s approval were left with excessive workloads, in addition to the antagonism. Top management were aware this individual was problematic, or at least had received reports from their exiting employees and/ or continued victims of the leader’s abuse. Top management were nevertheless unwilling to take action because in the best case scenario they either fed into the charming narratives of this duplicitous leader who was very expertly able to pull the wool over their eyes through adept political tactics, or in the worst case scenario, were willing to turn a blind eye in favor of a narrow focus on the bottom line.
So what’s the point of retelling this experience, aside from providing some context? Having a duplicitous leader is damaging in any organization, leaving employees confused as to how to handle such a leader. Consider that when dealing with an abusive supervisor, employees need to regulate themselves in order to avoid engaging in retaliation which ultimately could be detrimental for their long-term career objectives (e.g., Lian et al., 2014). However, in the face of a duplicitous leader, they are unable to make sense of this sometimes charming, sometimes abusive leader. Employees are left walking on eggshells, being ready at any minute to engage in self-control when encountering a negative interaction with this leader (Lian et al., 2017), but not quite knowing when this might be. Barnes and colleagues (2015) in their research on abusive supervision aptly summarized this conundrum when they said “…subordinates are hesitant to heavily engage in their work if their leaders are highly variable in abusive supervision, even if the supervisor is not being abusive on a given day. Perhaps such subordinates are waiting for the other shoe to drop, in that they might expect the leader’s behavior to become abusive at any moment.” If left unmanaged, you are left with an unpleasant and trepidatious work environment that employees will actively try to avoid where possible, in order to avoid interactions with this duplicitous leader; suffering poor wellbeing, and maybe even planning their exit strategy. This constant anticipation of threat can leave them depleted (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1998), which in itself takes a negative toll on wellbeing.
While all this does admittedly paint a sorry picture, the situation is not unsalvageable. We know from research that there are various things that can be done on both sides; the employee and the leader. Johnson and colleagues (2012) in their study note that leaders tend to adopt individual identities (focusing on their own personal values and goals as well as superiority over others), as an artefact of their positions of power and authority which sets them apart from their followers. The downside of this individual identity is that it can be related to abusive supervision. Instead, Johnson et al. advise that leaders move beyond this individual identity and develop more relational (focusing on relationships with followers) and collective identities (focusing on their role as organizational members), which are related to considerate and transformational leader behaviors. This appropriate identity focus then provides the necessary motivation to utilize the different forms of effective leadership behaviors that organizations should invest in as part of their leadership development practices.
Another avenue could be to focus on leader self-awareness. Leader self-awareness, both internal (e.g., being aware of your own values, reactions, and impact on others) and external (e.g., being aware of how others see you), has been related to effective leadership. Eurich (2018) suggests that actively seeking out critical feedback from a variety of individuals in the organization could be one way of raising a leader’s self- awareness. Leaders should then focus on asking themselves what they can do to act on the feedback they receive. This self-awareness can further help leaders to recognize the moral duties they owe to others, such as their employees, in for instance being supportive and considerate of them (Caldwell, 2009). As noted above, consistency is key here – inconsistency is the essence of duplicitousness and why it is so problematic. Leaders need to be aware that employees are perceptive to their erratic repertoire and this can be as damaging as a consistently abusive leader – at least with the latter, the employees know to always keep their guard up in order to protect themselves. In fact, in our own research, my colleagues and I have found that even a leader who demonstrates commendable servant leadership behaviors that are employee-centric in nature, but who is inconsistent in doing so, can actually do more harm than good.
Another approach could be to engage in a daily gratitude exercise where the leader recalls the things they are grateful for in their role and at their workplace. One study demonstrated that a gratitude intervention reduced workplace mistreatment of others, through its effects on enhancing an individual’s self-control resources (Locklear et al., 2021). Through these increased self-control resources, leaders are better able to exert control over their behaviors and hostility, and instead engage in more positive leadership behaviors and to do so consistently.
Finally, with respect to employees themselves, they can counteract their perceived lack of control and helplessness in the face of a duplicitous leader, by engaging in ingratiation and adopting positive affect, which in the above case is what some did do. Positive displays of ingratiation have been demonstrated to counteract the negative effects of abusive supervision on outcomes such as emotional exhaustion and wanting to leave the organization, and instead, restore a sense of control for employees, increase positive social interactions at work and garner more social support (Harvey et al., 2007). Simply put, it is human tendency to like people who flatter us and say positive things about us, helping to develop interpersonal bonds. Nevertheless, while this may help employees to cope with a duplicitous leader, and even develop a working relationship with them, the organization needs to make sure it has mechanisms of dissent in place which support employees in reporting negative incidents. This will allow matters to be actively addressed as opposed to going unnoticed, merely because some employees choose to deal with the issue on an individual basis, while others who might not have a positive disposition and lack (or are not inclined to use) ingratiation skills, continue to struggle in silence.
About the Author
Nishat Babu is an Assistant Professor in the Work & Organisation group at Loughborough University, UK. Her current research focuses on leadership, micro-level corporate social responsibility and wellbeing. She is a registered Chartered Psychologist with, and Associate Fellow of, the British Psychological Society.
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