Work for a horrible boss? You could end up being just as bad - as hostile behaviour at the top of an organisation has a trickle-down effect, study shows

Hostile behaviour from bosses leads to workers adopting similar behaviourIncludes inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, and humiliationThis can lead to a toxic atmosphere of insecurity and exhaustion in workplace

If you work for a horrible boss, you may spend your days telling yourself how much better you world be at their job.

But a new study finds you could end up being just as bad, as hostile behaviour from ‘abusive’ bosses has a trickle-down effect, leading to co-workers adopting similar behaviour.

Inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power are all examples of hostile behaviour, according to the researchers.

They found that more than two-thirds of employees who had experienced this kind of hostile behaviour from a leader then witnessed interpersonal aggression within the general workforce.

This can lead to a toxic atmosphere of insecurity and exhaustion in the workplace, according to the study by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the UK, as well as researchers in Pakistan, China and the United States.

‘It’s clear from our study that hostile behaviour at the top of a workplace is not only likely to be damaging to individuals in terms of their emotional exhaustion and job security,’ said co-author Dr Nadeem Khalid, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Strategy at ARU.

‘It is also likely to encourage other employees to act in unethical ways, creating a toxic environment across the entire organisation.’

Hostile behaviour from 'abusive' bosses has a trickle-down effect, leading to co-workers adopting similar behaviour

Hostile behaviour from ‘abusive’ bosses has a trickle-down effect, leading to co-workers adopting similar behaviour

For the study, the researchers surveyed 323 employees about their experiences of abusive behaviour from superiors and peers, and also their job security and level of emotional exhaustion.

Examples of hostile behaviour in the workplace included use of inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power.

They identified a ‘significant’ link between abusive leaders and abusive behaviour from co-workers.

They noted the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between bosses and junior staff, where bullied employees feel the only way to get ahead is to abuse others.

Of the 323 people involved in the study, 68 per cent who had experienced hostile behaviour from a leader had also witnessed interpersonal aggression from the general workforce, and 35 per cent had faced abusive peer behaviour themselves.

A toxic atmosphere of heightened competition is created as a result.

The study found an link between experiencing hostile behaviour from leaders and emotional exhaustion and job insecurity.

This suggests that mistreatment from peers can damage employees’ confidence in their job and their role within an organisation.

Of those who had experienced hostile behaviour from a leader, 52 per cent had suffered emotional exhaustion and 77 per cent had concerns about job security.

Inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power are all examples of hostile behaviour, according to the researchers

Inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power are all examples of hostile behaviour, according to the researchers

‘This mirroring of negative behaviour may have its roots in the reciprocal relationship between leaders and employees,’ said Dr Khalid

‘An employee who is mistreated may feel the only way to get ahead in their job is to treat others as they have been treated themselves.

‘This may not always be intentional but it results in a race to the bottom among employees and damages job security and leads to stress and exhaustion.’

He also noted that previous studies have shown that abusive behaviour from leaders is associated with a lack of commitment from employees, and has a negative effect on emotional wellbeing.

‘Our study suggests that the situation could be exacerbated by the negative behaviour of general workers as well as the leader,’ he said.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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