Abusive Supervision and Family Undermining as Displaced Aggression

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In whatever form it takes, aggression, whether physically harmful or solely painful to the ego, is a significant factor of life (Geen, 1991). Recent events have made managers aware that the workplace is not immune to violence and aggression (Denenberg & Braverman, 1999). While sensational events such as shootings immediately come to mind (Grunwald, 1997; "Rampage Brings Death," 1998), the unheralded verbal and passive forms of aggression, such as yelling, bullying, and humiliation can also be extremely damaging (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998; Keashly, 1998). Studies have suggested that violence occurs in 20% of workplaces (Romano, 1994). Yet, according to a study of university employees over a 6-month period, almost twice that many workplaces are the site of more subtle, nonphysical forms of aggression such as verbally harassing behavior or thoughtless, negative acts (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Hjelt-Back, 1994).

This study adds to a small but growing stream of research that focuses on nonphysical forms of workplace mistreatment (Neuman & Baron, 1997), in this case, abusive supervision. Abusive supervision is defined as "subordinates' perceptions of the extent to which their supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact" (Tepper, 2000, p.178). Examples of abusive supervision include a supervisor telling a subordinate that his or her thoughts or feelings are stupid, or putting the subordinate down in front of others. Abusive supervision has been investigated as an antecedent to negative subordinate workplace outcomes (Hoobler, Tepper, & Duffy, 2000; Tepper, 2000), and from a personality perspective (Ashforth, 1994). Early evidence points to abused subordinates experiencing greater psychological distress and job and life dissatisfaction, and more frequent intentions to quit their jobs, as compared to nonabused colleagues (Ashforth, 1997; Keashly, Trott, & MacLean, 1994).

In this study, we attempt to understand abusive supervision as one link in a chain of workplace events. In so doing, this research answers a call sounded by Andersson and Pearson (1999) to both define precursors to workplace aggression and to understand and investigate mistreatment as a related system of social interactions rather than as a single, discrete event. We draw from psychological research models that derive workplace violence from a combination of personal and situational factors (e.g., Barling, 1996). Specifically, we tested the premise that a situational factor, violation of a supervisor's psychological contract with his or her organization, leads to behaviors indicative of abusive supervision. We also looked at whether an individual cognitive factor, hostile attribution bias (Adams & John, 1997), would moderate that relationship. In addition, we examined how the negative actions of supervisors have the tendency to "flow downhill." Supervisors who perceive a psychological contract violation may be perceived as abusive by their subordinates. Abused subordinates may in turn negatively affect family life (family undermining) as perceived by family members.

We draw on displaced aggression to explain this series of events. Displaced aggression refers to the "redirection of a [person's] harmdoing behavior from a primary to a secondary target or victim" (Tedeschi & Norman, 1985, p. 30). Recent work on displaced aggression (Miller, Pedersen, Earleywine, & Pollock, 2003; Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller, 2000; Twenge & Campbell, 2003) has demonstrated that particular characteristics of the supervisor-subordinate and subordinate-family member relationship, when things go wrong, may be salient triggers for displaced aggression. Because individuals are often unable to confront the source of workplace stressors, we examine the likelihood of those individuals turning toward other, less powerful individuals on whom to vent their frustrations.

Psychological Contract Violation
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