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August 30, 2019
‘Bully’ bosses pose safety risks, study finds

Supervisors who bully the employees under their supervision pose a safety risk, a new study concluded. There was a clear relationship between abusive behavior among managers and supervisors and worsened safety behavior and poor safety outcomes among workers, a Portland State University (PSU) researcher found.

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Bullying bosses not only pose a threat to employees’ morale and their sense of well-being but also are bad for workplace safety.

Liu-Qin Yang, an associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and her coauthors surveyed 468 manufacturing technicians and 589 airline pilots. The researchers found clear signs that abusive supervision adversely affected safety.

Yang and her coauthors set out to study how and when higher abusive supervision led to a lapse in safety behaviors and worsened safety performance.
The survey of manufacturing technicians found that a sense of belonging among some workers helped limit the negative consequences of abusive supervision on workers’ safety behavior.

The higher social status of airline pilots reinforced their safety behavior, the researchers concluded. Abusive supervision had less of an impact on safety outcomes where employees had higher social standing.

Supervisors’ behaviors can either support or undermine employees’ status among their coworkers, strengthening or weakening employees’ sense of belonging, Yang said in a PSU statement.

Yang suggested that poor treatment from the boss can make employees feel they aren’t valued in the work group, which can:

  • Make workers more self-centered, causing them to forget to comply with safety rules or ignore opportunities to promote others’ safer work behaviors; and
  • Create circumstances in which other people are likely to become injured.

“When people are less sure about their strengths and weaknesses and their status within a group, they become more sensitive,” Yang said.

“They're more likely to respond negatively to their boss’ bullying behaviors.”

Handling ‘bully’ bosses

Companies need to curb frontline supervisors’ bad behavior, which has negative safety consequences for customers and employees, the study concluded. To create positive team dynamics in the workplace, it’s critical for employers to manage leaders’ behavior and support employees who may feel victimized, Yang and her coauthors said in their report.

The study’s recommendations included:

  • Implementing training programs to improve managers’ and supervisors’ skills in interacting with the employees they supervise, giving them the skills to provide discipline and feedback in ways that are not offensive or threatening;
  • Promoting a more civil and engaged work environment, strengthening social bonds among employees to create a buffer that limits the negative consequences of their boss's bad behaviors; and
  • Implementing a transparent performance evaluation process so that employees have no question about their social status in the workplace.

“Abusive supervision, thwarted belongingness, and workplace safety: A group engagement perspective” appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology and was released for advance online publication. Yang's coauthors included Xiaoming Zheng from Tsinghua University, China; Xin Liu from Renming University of China; Chang-qin Lu from Peking University, China; and John Schaubroeck from Michigan State University.

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