man in suit pointing finger
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Tom Snee

An award-winning study from the University of Iowa finds that workplace supervisors who verbally abuse their employees often do so because they’re bringing problems from home to the office.

The study, “My Family Made Me Do It,” found that family issues often wear on supervisors mentally and emotionally, a phenomenon known as ego depletion, and they take out their frustrations on employees. Amy Colbert, co-author and professor of management and organizations in the UI Tippie College of Business, says prior research considered only work-related factors that influenced abusive supervision. This is the first to consider family–work conflicts.

The study had two parts, with researchers surveying about 250 managers and their subordinates at firms in North America. They asked supervisors about conflicts at home and how they coped with those conflicts, and they asked employees how frequently the boss was verbally abusive.

Researchers found that managers with more family conflict were more likely to verbally abuse their employees because conflicts at home led to ego depletion, sapping their emotional and mental resources and leaving them less able to control their frustrations at work.

“Supervisors who face competing demands from separate family and work roles are more likely to experience lapses in self-control, which, in turn, makes it more likely they will engage in impulsive and destructive behavior such as abusive supervision,” says Colbert.

The study also found that women with family conflicts tended to be more abusive at work, largely because they have greater home and family demands. Supervisors also were more likely to be abusive if they felt their employer would let them get away with it, according to the study.

The study concluded that managers as well as employees need to achieve work–life balance, and firms have an interest in helping them achieve it to create a more harmonious and productive workplace. Previous studies have found corporations lose about $23.8 billion annually from lost productivity, grievance procedures, and health care costs stemming from abusive supervision and related behaviors.

The study won the 2017 Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award from the Boston College Center for Work and Family, which recognizes outstanding scholarship in work–family research. The paper was co-authored by Stephen Courtright of Texas A&M University and Brian McCormick of Northern Illinois University, both Tippie doctoral alumni, along with Richard Gardner of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Troy Smith of the University of Nebraska. It was published in the Academy of Management Journal.