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The pressure in the system – abusive supervisors

In research summarised in the July edition of the Psychologist journal, Pedro Neves at the New University of Lisbon found that following organisational downsizing employees are more likely to receive abuse from their supervisors. Maybe this is more common than we think.

Neves described displaced aggression theory, the tendency for people to vent their frustration not at the source, but at those who are less powerful. This is the notion of ‘kicking the dog’. The research found that submissive individuals received more abuse from supervisors. Of the 12 large and medium sized Portuguese organisations studied from a range of sectors including financial services, construction and health care, those who had been through downsizing showed that submissive employees were even more likely to be picked on.

I recently ran a team development workshop for a department within a large international organisation. This team was going through huge change, with significant uncertainty about the organisational structure from 2015 onwards and ambiguity about jobs, against a backdrop of being incredibly busy and overworked. Several team members referred to the macho culture and the delegation style of their senior leadership. The phrase “just get it off your desk” was used as a delegation mantra and a way they saw their senior leaders coping with the pressure. The impact of this was to sweep tasks downward, with those on the receiving end feeling overwhelmed, pressurised and demotivated.

Buck passing picture for blog

At times of high work pressure and organisational change two ‘forces’ come together. Leaders are in the stress quadrant of the support and challenge matrix and display huge levels of challenge with little support or empathy. Linked to this is the research by Pedro Neves of people feeling vulnerable and at risk. They had to accept this form of ‘delegation’ as they fear for their jobs if they resisted.

support challenge matrix

In examples like this, there is obviously a systemic problem. There is a focus on optimising individual needs at the detriment of the collective well being, you can imagine people saying “I delegated the job, so I’ve played my part, I’m not to blame.” However, if this continues there will be cascade failure, an avalanche of buck passing with huge destructive power.

So what can be done about this? Awareness of key organisational stakeholders can be raised either from within or from outside; through awareness comes change. Individuals can speak their truth and voice their concerns to change the system. Alternatively, people can leave the organisation and as the company decays it is forced to change.

Each of these options comes with risks, however, with positive intent change is possible, and with a critical mass of voices speaking their truth, change is inevitable.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

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