Abusive and Insecure Managers: Still Thriving and Hurting Their Companies

I've written often about understanding leadership and employee issues within the larger context of a company's overall management culture. The latter is intertwined with the personalities of individual leaders and with the relationships among and between employees and managers. Two recent studies show when this interplay has negative consequences for team performance and morale. One illustrates the impact of abusive managers. The other reveals that insecure managers resist and reject useful feedback from employees.

In the first, a Michigan State University study found that psychologically abusive managers create tremendous conflict for their work teams. For example, they typically damage productivity and commitment of employees through the undermining impact of abusive behavior. The study adds to the evidence that any aspect of an unhealthy management culture will undermine the potential for creating a well-functioning team. That links with my own observations from working with companies and leaders that unhealthy management behavior and an overall unhealthy leadership culture are intertwined; and that subordinates have an ongoing challenge of learning to deal with them.

The Michigan-lead study, conducted both in China and the U.S., indicates that the impact of psychological abuse by managers is quite broad. Lead investigator Crystal Farh said that those who belittle and ridicule workers have not only a negative impact on workers' attitudes and behaviors; they also elicit hostile behavior among employees towards each another.

That is, the researchers found that employees who experienced abuse felt devalued and contributed less to the team. At the same time, the entire team "descended into conflicts," Farh said, which also reduced worker contributions. "Teams characterized by relationship conflict are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them.

That's the most disturbing finding," Farh added, "because it's not just about individual victims now, it's about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not." Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study also pointed out that, unfortunately, companies often tend to focus on abused employees and efforts restore their self-esteem. That matches my own observations, and it underscores the need to address how and why abusive and otherwise unhealthy leaders and leadership cultures arise and thrive to begin with.

A second study of an international corporation adds a related finding: that emotionally insecure managers tend to avoid feedback and input from their employees. It found that managers who were rated lower on self-confidence tended to have employees who were reluctant to provide feedback to them. Employees often reported that their managers didn't encourage it, and the study confirmed that: It found that the insecure managers tended to show less consideration of relevant feedback, an unwillingness to implement it, or rejected it altogether.

The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal and summarized in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, also underscored that organizations do better when there are clear communication channels that allow staff to point out ways the company can improve. So, as the Research Digest explains, encouraging employee voice should be a "no-brainer," especially for any manager feeling unsure of their performance ability or skills. But ironically, according to the research, the insecure managers are the ones least likely to listen and act on staff input.

At root, here, is that the insecure manager likely feels threatened by employees' input. The study suggests that the managers' rejection of input reflects psychological defensiveness and their desire to protect their own status: "Those anxious about their capability may be afraid of being unmasked, and turn away from sources of insight, at their own cost."

Of course, I don't think either of these recent findings are news to employees who often struggle with abusive or insecure managers; or to those of us who have worked with leaders whose psychological issues negatively affect their employees and teams. Nevertheless, it's good to see such research accumulate. Perhaps they will increase the likelihood that organizations will address more directly the impact of an unhealthy management culture in general, and in the varied ways leaders manifest it - whether personal insecurity, poor communication skills, arrogance, narcissism, bullying; and consequently creating a non-collaborative, destructive and overall unhealthy environment.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.