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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Your boss yelled at you in a staff meeting, embarrassing you in front of your co-workers before later apologizing to make nice.

But a new study from the University of Iowa suggests your boss’ apology might be more about faking nice than making nice.

“Our study shows that what appears to be remorseful behavior on the part of the abusive supervisor is, more often than not, a superficial ‘faking nice’ response that doesn't actually change their behavior,” says Stephen Courtright, professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Tippie College of Business. “We find abusive supervisors are generally more concerned with repairing their social image after a blow-up than actually repairing the lack of morality underlying their abusive behavior.”

Given how abusive supervisors can lower morale, increase turnover, and reduce productivity, Courtright says the study shows it’s in an organization’s best interest to promptly address supervisor abuse, no matter how well the supervisor performs or how contrite they seem.

The researchers’ study sent daily surveys to 79 supervisors from a variety of businesses over a three-week period that asked about the frequency of their abusive behavior and their attempts to make amends. This allowed the researchers to capture supervisors’ abusive behavior in “real time,” Courtright says, as well their motives and behaviors after episodes of abuse.

The researchers found that supervisors who acknowledged being abusive did not feel all that bad about their behavior and they didn’t think they did much of anything wrong. They understood, however, that the behavior made them look bad so they needed to do something to make up for it. This suggests their amends-making efforts were less about apologizing for their abusiveness and more about keeping up appearances to their staff, co-workers, and managers. The study also found that the more the supervisor did to make up for the abuse, the less sincere they actually were.

“Abusive supervisors are generally more concerned with repairing their social image than actually addressing their behavior,” Courtright says. “This means the abuse will continue next time when something sets them off. It’s just a destructive cycle.”

In other words, the remorse is all for show and Courtright says firms would be wise to recognize that behavior for what it is—an attempt to manipulate rather than change.

As a result of these findings, Courtright suggests there is even more of an imperative for organizations to set a no-tolerance policy for abusive behavior, and then stick to it.

“Even if you want to believe the supervisor is sorry and will change his ways,” he says.

Courtright’s study, “Making Nice or Faking Nice: Exploring Supervisors’ Two-faced Response to their Past Abusive Behavior” was published in the journal Personnel Psychology and co-authored by Shawn McLean of the University of Wyoming, Junhyok Yim of Texas A&M University, and Troy Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Media contact: Tom Snee, tom-snee@uiowa.edu, 319-541-8434