It is not uncommon for supervisors to lose their cool with employees at some point. Sometimes it can escalate to become abusive. Dr. Troy Smith, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business, studied how abusive bosses perceive and respond to their own abusive behaviors.
“We explored how leaders view their own abusive behaviors and how those views subsequently influence their future behaviors toward employees,” said Smith, who published “Making Nice or Faking Nice? Exploring Supervisors’ Two-faced Response to Their Past Abusive Behavior” in Personnel Psychology. “We found that some supervisors do not feel bad about their abusive actions. Rather they see their toxic actions as damaging to their social image or how others view them. Subsequently, rather than engage in genuine amends or changing their behaviors to resolve their social image concerns, they engage in impression management behaviors. In other words, they instrumentally fake nice rather than genuinely make nice as a means of repairing their social image.”
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Although extant research has shown that abusive supervision is a destructive and immoral form of leader behavior, theory provides conflicting perspectives on how supervisors respond to their own abusive behavior. We therefore draw upon and integrate moral cleansing theory and impression management and construction theory to explore whether and when supervisors engage in genuine reparations or impression management following episodes of abusive behavior. Results taken from a 3-week, experience sampling study of supervisors suggest support for the impression management path; following episodes of abusive behavior, supervisors higher on symbolized moral identity become more concerned with their image, and thus engage in increased ingratiation, self-promotion, and exemplification toward their subordinates. In contrast, we found no support for the genuine, moral cleansing path. This study thus extends knowledge regarding supervisors’ responses to their own abusive behavior, challenging the existing notion that such responses are genuine and focused on addressing the moral implications of the behavior.