A crisis changes everything. Friends are gone, and survivors must adapt to a new, dangerous environment. In the aftermath, predators circle to exploit the weak and vulnerable. According to new research, this not only describes the red tooth and claw of nature, it also applies to the workplace. Pedro Neves at the New University of Lisbon provides evidence that following an organisational downsize, employees are more likely to receive abuse from their supervisors.
Neves was guided by displaced aggression theory – the idea that workplace abuse is often a form of “kicking the dog” – venting our frustrations not at their source, rather at those whom we have power over. Neves predicted that this leads supervisors to target those most unable or unwilling to retaliate: submissive individuals characterised by low “core self-evaluation”(CSE; a combination of personal traits relating to self-image including self-esteem and belief in one’s own abilities), and/or those with fewer co-worker allies.
Survey data from 12 large and medium-sized Portugese organisations from a range of industries – financial to construction to healthcare – confirmed that individuals with lower CSE or less co-worker support were at the receiving end of more abuse, based on their self-ratings of items such as “my supervisor blames me to save himself/herself embarrassment” or “tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid”. Four of the organisations had gone through downsizing in the prior two years, and in these, submissive employees were even more likely to be picked on. A post-downsizing environment involves uncertainty, ruptures to social networks, and a higher sense of individual risk – all of which heightens vulnerabilities and gives confidence to aggressors that their abuse is unlikely to be fought against.
The data also showed that submissive individuals performed more poorly and engaged in fewer organisational citizenship behaviours, which Neves argues is evidence of the employees also “kicking the dog” – in this case channeling their resentment of the supervisor into minor acts to undermine the organisation.
As this was a cross-sectional survey we have to be careful about drawing such causal inferences, but further analysis suggested two obvious alternative explanations were unlikely: that submissive traits were the consequence of supervisor criticism; or that abuse was causing both poor performance and the submissive traits.
Neves advises facilitating co-worker support as a bulwark against exploitation of the vulnerable, and to build the CSE of employees. These are good things to encourage in any case – but ultimately, the responsibility for change lies not with the abused, but the abusers, to cease picking on the weak.
Neves, P. (2014). Taking it out on survivors: Submissive employees, downsizing, and abusive supervision. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12061