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Horrible bosses cause 'race to the bottom' - study

Published: 30 September 2022 at 12:49

Employee sitting at desk in office and rubbing eyes in tiredness or stress

Research suggests behaviour of co-workers can mirror hostility of their leaders

A new study has found that hostile behaviours from “abusive” bosses can lead to co-workers adopting similar behaviour, leading to a toxic atmosphere of insecurity and exhaustion in the workplace.

The study, carried out by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the UK as well as researchers in Pakistan, China and the United States, surveyed 323 employees about their experiences of abusive behaviour from superiors and peers, and also their job security and level of emotional exhaustion.

Examples of hostile behaviour in the workplace considered by the researchers included use of inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power.

Researchers uncovered a significant association between abusive leader behaviour and abusive behaviour from co-workers. Of the 323 people involved in the study, 68% who had experienced hostile behaviour from a leader had also witnessed interpersonal aggression from the general workforce.

The study also reported an association between experiencing hostile behaviour from leaders and emotional exhaustion and job insecurity, suggesting that mistreatment from peers can damage employees’ confidence in their job and their role within an organisation.

Of those who had experienced hostile behaviour from a leader, 35% had faced abusive peer behaviour themselves, 52% had suffered emotional exhaustion and 77% had concerns about job security.

Co-author Dr Nadeem Khalid, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Strategy at ARU, said:

“It’s clear from our study that hostile behaviour at the top of a workplace is not only likely to be damaging to individuals in terms of their emotional exhaustion and job security, it is also likely to encourage other employees to act in unethical ways, creating a toxic environment across the entire organisation.

“This mirroring of negative behaviour may have its roots in the reciprocal relationship between leaders and employees. An employee who is mistreated may feel the only way to get ahead in their job is to treat others as they have been treated themselves – this may not always be intentional but it results in a race to the bottom among employees and damages job security and leads to stress and exhaustion.

“Previous studies have shown that abusive behaviour from leaders is associated with a lack of commitment from employees, and has a negative effect on emotional wellbeing. Our study suggests that the situation could be exacerbated by the negative behaviour of general workers as well as the leader.”