McDonough School of Business
News Story

Abusive Leadership is in the Eye of the Beholder

Over the years and across many industries, through a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and reality television, society has been exposed more than ever before to extremely outspoken leaders seen as abrasive and sometimes cruel in their management tactics. Yet, these leaders, such as Steve Jobs, Gordon Ramsay, and Martha Stewart, who are perceived by many as being abusive, are celebrated by others. So, when is this tyrannical style of management considered abusive versus motivating?      

In a new book, Understanding the High Performance Workplace, which takes an in-depth look at an array of leadership styles and their effectiveness, a chapter titled, “Abusive Leaders or Master Motivators? ‘Abusive’ is in the Eye of the Beholder,” challenges the either/or assumptions explored in previous studies that a leader’s actions may be guided by only one motive: abusive or inspirational. Robert J. Bies, professor of management and founder of the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and his co-authors Thomas M. Tripp of Washington State University and Debra L. Shapiro of University of Maryland, also examine how perceptions of the people these leaders oversee are influenced and offer a greater insight into the perceived effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – of leaders. Their chapter in the forthcoming book, co-edited by scholars Rebecca J. Bennett, Neal Ashkanasy, and Mark Martinko, is to be published by Routledge Press this month.

“Steve Jobs is a perfect example for this debate. In Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs, an in-depth biography of the life and leadership of Jobs, Isaacson recounts examples of people who perceived Steve Jobs as an abusive leader, one who could be mean, even cruel, to people,” Bies said. “Yet, there were many others who viewed Steve Jobs as the ultimate master motivator, one who put a ‘dent in the universe’ at Apple. In our analysis we argue that leaders can be both abusive and motivational in their leadership tactics. It is all in the eye of the beholder.”

Bies and his co-authors found that to determine whether a leader’s behavior is viewed as abusive or performance-demanding, a subordinate takes into account the leader’s motives, whether the leader has a winning track record, and how much trust there is in the leader. For instance, Bobby Knight, former head coach of men’s basketball at Indiana University, was known to be aggressive in his coaching style, yet because he produced high-performance teams, he received numerous accolades and people looked past his style of motivation. However, when his team began losing, perceptions quickly changed, news coverage of his behavior became far harsher, and Knight was eventually fired for reasons that pointed to the abusiveness of his leadership style at a time when his team no longer had a winning record.

Bies and his co-authors focused on the role of “social contextual factors” that may shape individual perceptions of abusive supervision, an area of study that has been largely neglected in previous research on abusive leadership tactics. The authors focused on several factors that may influence whether a supervisor’s performance-criticizing remarks are perceived and interpreted by the receiver as “abuse” versus “inspirational motivation.” These social contextual factors are:

  • The supervisor’s success in developing those they are leading – When a supervisor tends to develop employees into top performers, even when providing harsh critiques or when being aggressive, the employees view the experience more favorably and potentially as motivating.
  • Trust in the supervisor – People will view their supervisors with rose-colored glasses if trust is in place. A supervisor’s performance-criticizing remarks will be seen as motivating (e.g. She wants to encourage me to perform my best) rather than being malicious (e.g. She wants to intimidate me into complying with unreasonable demands).
  • Explanations provided for motives guiding the supervisor’s behavior – These explanations also are influential. It is important for managers to appear fair and indicate a perceived sincerity. This communication approach likely will reduce perceptions of abusive supervision because a component of abusiveness is insincerity.
  • Peer opinions about the supervisor – Gossip is a powerful thing and false accusations can make victims of falsely accused supervisors. The way a supervisor is perceived is influenced by the remarks heard from co-workers and team members. Employees’ comments about how fairly they are treated, or about work-related experiences more generally, influence others’ fairness perceptions and perceptions of abusive supervision.

Bies and his co-authors found it to be possible for a supervisor to be seen as both abusive and inspirationally motivating, and that whichever perception dominates at any given point in time depends on the scenario, such as being at the helm while a company stock price is rising versus when it is flailing. They also found that leaders who are seen as abusive may not, in fact, be abusive, as perceived by the people they lead.

“Leaders across all industries will benefit from our research,” Bies said. “It behooves managers, as well as management scholars, to understand what influences perceptions of those in leadership roles and how to strengthen the trust of those supervisors lead. It is critical communications are perceived as motivational, not abusive, and that organizations have supervisors in place who will inspire the best performance possible from their employees without being – or being perceived to be – abusive.”