Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

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Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

4 responses

  1. From what I understand, approximately 2/3 of parents who were themselves the victims of child abuse *do not* go on to abuse their children. A minority of the non-abusers actually become exceptionally good parents. Yes, if a parent was abused as a child, he or she does have a greater risk of becoming an abusive parent. However, the most important take-home message is this: Most children who were themselves the victims of child abuse *do not* go on to abuse their children *and* some of them become exceptionally good parents.

    The question I have for the researchers is this: what percentage of managers, who were victims of workplace abuse *do not* become abusive managers. Next question: what percentage of managers who were not victims of workplace abuse *do not* become abusive managers. Third question: what percentage of managers who were victims of workplace abuse eventually become exceptional managers? Fourth question: What percentage of managers who were not victims of workplace abuse eventually become exceptional managers? How similar is this to what goes on in families?

    In families, we know that parents with certain psychiatric disorders (especially Anti-Social Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and to a lesser extent the other Cluster B Personality Disorders) are at a elevated risk of becoming child abusers. Same goes for people who have callous unemotional traits. I think the work being done, studying what happens when parents have these traits should be replicated, but in the occupational setting.

  2. It’s not surprising to me that victims of workplace bullying can sometimes wring some value out of their experience. Let’s contrast that to the value the perpetrators are able to…with careful consideration of how we define value and who benefits from whose experience.

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