ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (4): 906-921.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00906

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Antecedents of abusive supervision

WANG Haizhen(), GENG Zizhen, DING Lin, SHAN Chunxia   

  1. Xi’an International Studies University, Xi’an, 710128, China
  • Received:2021-01-05 Online:2022-04-15 Published:2022-02-22
  • Contact: WANG Haizhen


Abusive supervision refers to supervisors’ “sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact,” as perceived by their subordinates (Tepper, 2000: 178). Given that such behavior has been shown to lead to various unfavorable work outcomes, it is essential for researchers and practitioners to understand why and under what circumstances supervisors might become abusive.

Studies seeking to identify the causes of abusive supervision have approached the issue from the perspectives of supervisor characteristics, self-depletion theory, social learning theory, and victim precipitation theory. Studies that examine abusive supervision through the lens of supervisor characteristics suggest that around a dozen characteristics (e.g., conscientiousness and narcissism) increase the likelihood of supervisors becoming abusive. Research based on the theory of self-depletion suggests that abusive supervision reflects a lack of self-control and results from resource depletion; thus, stressors that consume supervisors’ self-control resources may cause abusive supervision. Empirical studies have identified a series of stressors related to abusive supervision, such as difficult goals and role overload. Research based on the theory of social learning, however, contends that abusive supervision is imitated and learned from abusive role models, such as managers or colleagues or even family members. Lastly, research based on victim precipitation theory suggests that there are certain actions or traits of subordinates that may precipitate abusive supervision; this line of research primarily focuses on the subordinate-specific variables that may make certain subordinates more likely to become targets of supervisor abuse. In this vein, studies have examined provocative and submissive subordinate behaviors and characteristics. We systematically review the relevant research findings.

Although the aforementioned studies have achieved fruitful results, evidence explaining situation-triggered abusive supervision is still insufficient. Drawing on affective events theory, we posit a theoretical framework that explains how affective events give rise to supervisors’ negative emotions, which, in turn, incite abusive supervision. The framework also takes into account the potential moderating roles of self-control motivation and self-control resources in the relationship between negative emotions and abusive supervision. Drawing on the theory of planned behavior, we analyze supervisors’ self-control motivation (which prevents abusive behavior) in three aspects: attitudes toward abusive supervision, subjective norms toward aggression, and perceived behavioral control. Self-control resources are investigated from the perspectives of resource endowment, resource consumption, and resource recovery.

Our work based on the above framework has several limitations, and future studies will be necessary to extend this line of research. First, future research should examine supervisor attitudes toward abusive supervision. Abusive supervision is undoubtedly unethical. It largely remains unknown that how abusive supervisors justify their attitude to such unethical behaviors. A large body of work in unethical behavior literature seeks to explain similar phenomenon. Using this literature to examine the emergence of abusive supervision will provide a more comprehensive explanation for this phenomenon. In addition, some managers still hold the view that subordinate abuse, despite its many documented dysfunctional effects, has a functional place within organizations; exploring such attitudes in more depth will help prevent supervisors from abusing subordinates. Second, future studies should explore the mechanism through which the norms governing organizational abusive supervision form. Norm focus theory suggests that norms have a substantial impact on human actions. However, little attention has been paid to the formation and effects of organizational norms on abusive supervision. Lastly, given the importance of self-control resources in preventing abusive behavior, it will be helpful to examine the means by which supervisors restore depleted self-control resources. The literature contains some pioneering findings in this area, and future research should examine whether such resource restoration strategies can be applied in the workplace to reduce abusive supervision.

Key words: abusive supervision, self-depletion, social learning, victim precipitation, affective events theory

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