Abusive bosses infect entire teams, MSU study claims

Aug 30, 2014

Many Michiganders are enjoying a long weekend away from their abusive bosses.

The 2011 movie Horrible Bosses had audiences laughing at abusive bosses. But a new MSU study say abusive leaders are a serious problem.

A new Michigan State University study finds leaders who are verbally abusive to their employees are actually doing more harm than you may think.    

Crystal Fahr is an assistant professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business.  She is the lead investigator on the study published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology

She says abuse, even if it is directed primarily at one employee, infects the whole team. And it doesn’t end by just replacing the boss.

“Once a team is in a state of conflict, these things only get worse,” says Fahr, “It’s not very easy for a team to step out of the conflict once it’s begun.”

Fahr says researchers were surprised that employees with an abusive boss didn’t band together, but instead tended to turn on each other.   

“You also have to look at the team relationships themselves,” says Fahr, “You have to restore harmonious relationships to get to a state where people are motivated to contribute again.  It doesn’t seem like an easy fix.  It’s not just about removing one person anymore.  It’s about the whole social context.”

Fahr says it’s important for companies to make efforts to fix the team’s interpersonal relationships, not just focus on the needs of individual employees.