First-line supervisors are the link between where strategic decisions are made on high with where the work of the organization gets done. The first-line leadership role is stressful because it has a high level of responsibility (and visibility), but a relatively low level of control. Frontline supervisors are charged to “take care of it,” but generally don’t have decision-making authority to go with that command.  I have seen more than a few newly appointed leaders really struggle with being in charge of former peers. One more reason for the high stress load: little or no formal training or other preparation to take the lead.

Recent behavioral science research on the challenges experienced by new managers (first line and above) all are in the arena of interpersonal skills, broadly defined.

Some supervisors figure it out for themselves, and become the kind of leader who people want to work for. The ballpark figure floated in popular sources is that about half of managers are seen by their employees as “effective.”

What about the other half?

Dependent leadership

Some new supervisors cope by adopting a stern, authoritarian, command-and-control style of leadership. Lacking the knowledge and skill to engage others, motivate them, build a team, etc., they just take charge and tell people what to do. In such a scenario, they are prone to micro-manage. They keep individual employees and the collective team at a level of dependence, which generally results in employee disengagement and a “why should I bother?” attitude.  This fosters low morale and underperformance.

But some supervisors actually become hostile and abusive.

Actively hostile “leadership” is common enough that a recent review identified 82 scholarly research papers aimed directly at the topic. A bottom-line conclusion: it is not just the targets of abuse who are affected; a boss’s hostile behavior affects the morale and performance of all. Affected employees rarely directly retaliate; they are much more likely to just disengage from their work.

In my leadership coaching work, I help develop individuals in leadership positions. Not surprisingly, their strengths are always in the technical arena. Their developmental needs are interpersonal-skills related.

In cases where the client was in a remedial situation, the problems are virtually always in the interpersonal area. Some struggling leaders are passive, low key, non-players, but more fit the abusive supervisor profile. Beyond micromanaging, they are given to outbursts and meltdowns, with their employees as convenient captive targets.

Supervisor action, employee reaction

While there are some behaviors that are unequivocally abusive, more subtle verbal and nonverbal behaviors can be open to interpretation. Was Steve Jobs an abusive supervisor or a charismatic leader (who pushed his people very hard at times)? The perception of abusive behavior depends on the actions of the supervisor and  the expectations and judgments, and the personality of the employee.

Case in point: A supervisor is touring a customer through her operation, and sees trash and hoses in the walkways. Having picked up the mess along the way, she calls a team meeting as soon as the customer has left, and tells the crew in an unusually loud voice, “… the poor housekeeping in our area has to stop… now! We all know better than to walk past a spill, or trash in the aisle. Is it going to take an accident before we start doing it right? Not on my watch folks, not on my watch!”

 Is that supervisor being abusive? Some employees might say yes. Others may take the kick in the pants and redouble their efforts to keep a clean work area. Some might even respect and appreciate the fact that the supervisor is taking a no-nonsense stand on an important, ongoing problem, and is just demanding high (and fair) standards of performance. “Way to go, boss!”

But suppose we are past the gray area, and it is clear that the boss is bullying. What are the options?

As I suggested in an earlier column on “working with jerks” (August 2008), there is no simple, magic formula for addressing abusive supervision, certainly not from below. Clear and unequivocal support from the top of the organization is essential. Top leadership must make it clear that anything other than professional respect and adult-to-adult communication is out of bounds and will be stopped. HR hotlines and legitimate open-door policies, if followed up upon, can support employees in addressing abusive bosses. 

If you are the boss, be aware of the costs of abusive supervision.  If you are not the boss, leave this column where the boss might see it.