Cracking the whip

Managers trying to encourage their team to ‘do more with less’ sometimes overstep the mark. But when do high-pressure demands turn into abuse – and why do staff differ so markedly in their reactions to it? And how can managers trying to improve performance avoid being seen as bullies?

Steve Jobs was the creative genius who helped to usher in a new age of technology, transforming industries from computing to music, movies and mobile communications. He was one of the world’s most respected business leaders. However it is widely recognised that the Apple founder also had a dark side – he was an aggressive and domineering boss who heaped caustic abuse upon his staff.

Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson was another high achiever known as a tyrant to his employees. In Robert A. Caro’s award-winning biography, he describes how Johnson would curse and constantly belittle people, play demeaning practical jokes on them, and drive them to work extreme hours.

Those unable to take his behavior were quickly fired. However, like Jobs, Johnson elicited lifetime loyalty from those who learned to deal with it. “The Chief [Johnson] made his boys feel part of a team, almost like part of a family,” says Caro.

In the pursuit of high performance, many leaders are tempted to overstep the mark. But at what point do high-pressure demands turn into bullying? Why does such abuse have a devastating effect on some people and inspire devotion in others? And how can managers encourage high performance without being seen as bullies?

According to UQ Business School’s Professor Neal Ashkanasy, an expert on emotions in the workplace, these questions are particularly relevant at a time when both public and private sector employees are under pressure to cut costs and ‘do more with less’ in the wake of the GFC. Professor Ashkanasy is currently leading research into abusive supervision and has already secured a publishing deal to write a book on the subject.

“The private sector has seen large-scale job losses in the past five years while in Queensland there have been deep cuts to public sector staffing levels since 2012,” he says.

“In situations like these, ‘survivors’ are under pressure to maintain productivity at or above previous levels. This increased pressure to perform can result in supervisors engaging in over-zealous practices that can be seen by employees to be abusive.

“Supervisory management is an important determinant of high performance. Of course, supervisors can adopt different means to motivate people to work harder; including offering rewards for goal attainment and making the consequences of failure clear.

“Unfortunately, all too often they result in supervisor behaviours that are perceived as aggressive, bullying or abusive – such as angry outbursts, publicly ridicule team members, punishment, social isolation, and denigrate their work.”

Research provides clear evidence of the harmful consequences on employees. Tyrannical behaviour by supervisors has been linked to employees’ psychological distress, excessive drinking and health problems.

Besides the issues it creates for employee and their family, such behaviour can also boomerang directly back as the worker seeks revenge on the manager and the company itself.

Retaliation can ever so occasionally take the form of physical violence but more often than not it involves actions such as spreading rumours, writing letters to senior management, stealing from the company, being late for work, taking time off sick or making personal phone calls in work time.

In some cases employees become locked into a vicious cycle – they experience high pressure supervision, they retaliate, the boss then takes some sort of action in response and the cycle begins again. The experience can be highly damaging.

Professor Ashkanasy believes employees’ reactions to abusive supervision depend to some extent on whether they perceive it to be the boss’s fault.

“It has a lot to do with whether you see your boss as being subject to external pressures,” he explains. “If you attribute their behaviour to pressure from outside, then you are more likely to listen to what they are saying and work harder, but if you believe they are personally responsible, you may decide it’s unfair so you retaliate or rebel by engaging in deviant behavior.”

Research suggests that if employees perceive that there is a climate of injustice, they are more likely to react negatively. If they have a positive attitude to their leader – if they like and trust them – they are more likely to attribute it to external factors, view it as a challenge and work harder.

The employee’s response also depends on their personality. People who have high self-esteem and self-efficacy in their jobs tend to respond more positively to high-pressure demands, as do the more conscientious types – because they are diligent and self-disciplined, they are likely to view demands as a challenge rather than as a threat.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is another factor. Those with high EI levels tend to perform better under stress and may well have the resilience to deal with their supervisor’s demands. A recent research project carried out by a UQ Business School student measured the levels of stress hormone in people subject to high-pressure situations, and found that those with high EI levels had lower levels of stress.

Whatever attitude an employee takes to the supervisor – whether positive or negative – the effect intensifies with repeated interactions to form a ‘cognitive knot’ – a self-reinforcing cycle. Attitudes harden as people become more set in their view of the other’s behavior. Negative cognitive knots can result in outbursts of aggression, while positive knots can result in increased loyalty, which could explain the polarisation in employees’ responses to bosses like Jobs and Johnson.

While research work is continuing, Professor Ashkanasy believes there are two key lessons for managers in these situations – that they need to explain clearly the reason for their demands and to practice authentic leadership.

“Authentic leaders – those who are positive, optimistic, have high morals, who consider individuals’ needs and who create a supportive environment for employees to work in – have a distinct advantage in situations like these. If they have to ask staff to do more with less, they are more likely to elicit a positive attitude from them,” says Professor Ashkanasy.

“Authentic leaders not only mitigate the negative effects that increased pressure can bring, but they can use their leadership style to their advantage, by eliciting responses from staff that are extraordinarily energetic and productive and achieving very positive outcomes in difficult times.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019