Safety Articles

Abusive Supervision and Workplace Violence

When workplace violence takes place, it’s often at the confluence of multiple factors that have created a perfect storm. One of the most important common denominators in violent workplace incidents is an abusive supervisory style. While the link between abusive supervision and workplace violence seems like an intuitive assumption, this has also been well established by multiple studies. When employees are victims of abusive supervisory behaviors, they become a higher risk for violence or aggression themselves.

What Is Abusive Supervision?

Abusive supervision is, in fact, bullying behavior, and bullying is about power. The difference between an abusive supervisor and a bullying co-worker is the origin of the power imbalance.

An abusive supervisor exploits the power imbalance created by his/her position within the organization. A bullying co-worker creates the power imbalance (or at least the perception of the same) through coercion, intimidation, ridicule, etc. Abusive supervision focuses on the power to punish rather than the ability to reward in order to get what the supervisor wants from his or her employees.

Abusive supervisory behavior includes screaming reprimands; public correction; inconsistent, unreasonable, or capricious expectations; holding others responsible for their own poor communication skills; and manipulative or “bait and switch” motivational tactics.

Abusive bosses are constant critics who insult, belittle, and put down their people. They may be prone to out-of-control ranting, or they may use explosive displays of rage to coerce their employees.

Other types of abuse may not be so obvious. Some abusive supervisors are pleasant and affable to your face but then stab you in the back when you are no longer around. Some abusive bosses will micromanage the work of their employees and insist that no decisions can be made by their employees — no matter how trivial — without their approval.

Abusive bosses may call people names, and they may use foul language copiously. They may withhold paychecks in order to punish or force employees to do something. (Which in some, but not all, states is illegal.) They will take credit for other people’s work.

Specific Abusive Supervisory Behaviors

There are several behaviors that an abusive supervisor exhibits that you can be on the lookout for.

Questioning competence or commitment. Abusive bosses may disparage the ideas and opinions of their workers, and they will not care if it’s in private or in front of others. They make a practice of looking for a scapegoat to blame when something goes wrong, and they will take credit, deserved or not, when things go well. If their employees resist sacrificing personal time and working long hours, abusive supervisors will question their loyalty to the organization. Their people often work long hours out of fear they may be fired if they don’t.

Intruding on privacy. Supervisors who are abusive may spy on their employees. Bullying bosses may snoop through their employee’s office when they are out, or they may tamper with others’ personal belongings at work. It’s not uncommon for abusers to listen in on private conversations or to open the mail addressed to their employees. This can often be an attempt to discover some major or minor infraction that could be used to assert more control over the employee.

Undermining an employee’s work. Abusive supervisors set employees up for failure by imposing unreasonable deadlines or by changing assignment guidelines in the middle of the task, causing extra, unnecessary work. They may withhold information needed for the success of the project, or they may refuse to provide needed feedback in a timely manner.

Obstructing employees’ successes. With abusive supervision, control figures prominently into the abusive boss’s behavior. A successful employee means less control for the abusive supervisor. Accordingly, they may punish employees for mistakes that they were not responsible for. They may block a promotion or a transfer, or they may sabotage opportunities for training that could lead to advancement. They may impose their influence on a project in order to create a mediocre or merely adequate outcome, instead of a truly remarkable achievement.

Undermining workplace social life. This is a well-studied tactic of abusive supervisors. In a 2002 study, Duffy, Gangster, and Pagon identified behaviors by abusive supervisors that were designed to obstruct a worker’s ability to develop and maintain positive interpersonal relationships with other workers in the organization. They may pass on gossip or even fabricate or spin information about the health, physical appearance, or the personal life of the targeted worker. Other tactics include social exclusion by keeping the targeted worker’s name off invitation lists for workplace social events, and failing to include them in company outings or special meetings. They may also plan meeting times to intentionally create a scheduling conflict for the targeted worker.

What You Can Do

If you are an executive at your company, one of the best investments of time you can make is to periodically walk through the workplace and observe management styles among your supervisors. You may need to drop by your team’s jobsites periodically to get this view. It’s much easier to take steps to mitigate abusive supervisory behavior than to recover after an incident of violence. A little training can go a long way.

If you are a supervisor, check your style. If you are able to see some of these behaviors in yourself, and you are willing to improve, do some reading. Ask for some training. You are unquestionably and uniquely positioned to make your organizational culture more resistant to workplace violence.

About the Author:

Gary Sheely is a tactical confrontation specialist focusing on workplace violence issues. He’s published three books, including his latest, Safe at Work: How Smart Supervisors Reduce the Risk of Workplace Violence. He conducts training workshops and has been a keynote speaker across the United States. For more information, contact: Gary Sheely,

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