A lot of us have experienced that feeling of being misunderstood or undervalued at work. You’re doing an amazing job, and you know it, but your manager doesn’t seem to appreciate this. Recent studies have shown that there are harmful effects to both employees and companies because of these ‘bad bosses’, who engage in behavior such as abuse, bullying and undermining. This uncivil workplace behavior can lead to reduced job satisfaction, a rise in health complaints, counterproductive employee behaviors, increased withdrawal and higher employee turnover.
My research focuses on a relatively common form of mistreatment at work known as supervisor social undermining. This is when a supervisor intentionally tries to hinder an employee’s success at work, interfere with their ability to maintain positive work relationships and attempts to tarnish their reputation. In my recent study, I explored which aspects of an individual and their workplace situation can increase the negative effects of being undermined by a supervisor.
So, who responds most severely to supervisor social undermining?
I used two studies to assess the effects of social undermining and the types of individuals most likely to be affected. It was evident that the employees with high core self-evaluations, who also have high trust in workplace management, were most likely to experience heightened stress when undermined. Core self-evaluations means how much someone believes they are worth and whether they deem themselves capable of handling difficult tasks and challenges. When faced with a problem, individuals with high core self-evaluations generally believe, “I can handle this problem.” However, when exposed to boss’ undermining, they are more likely to become stressed and consider leaving a company.
These negative outcomes can be explained by the self-verification theory; the idea that individuals seek out information that confirms what they believe about themselves, to make sure they feel understood and verified by others. When we are presented with a situation that challenges what we believe about ourselves, then our self-concept is threatened and we can experience stressful outcomes.
Supervisor undermining does not confirm the self for those with high core self-evaluations. These individuals turn to their environment to make sense of their treatment. Those that view workplace management as generally untrustworthy view their treatment as a symptom of their environment, and not due to themselves. However, employees that perceive workplace management as trustworthy view their mistreatment as more personal and ultimately their self-concept is threatened, especially since their treatment does not correspond with the global perceptions of how workplace management treats employees.
The high core self-evaluation, high trust in management employees are more likely to feel misunderstood when undermined by their supervisor, especially at heightened levels of undermining. It is through feeling misunderstood and a lack of self-verification that explains their stronger response to supervisor undermining.
When our self-concepts are challenged, we can engage in compensatory responses to disprove the unsupportive information and regain control. Therefore, high core self-evaluation, high trust individuals are more likely to think about leaving the organization, as they are actively looking for a work environment that confirms their self-concept and in which they can thrive. Although these outcomes are negative for organizations, for the employee these outcomes can be adaptive responses that may lead them to being better off and more resilient. Interestingly, although employees who are either high self-concept or high trust in management are least likely to experience or report undermining, it is these employees who have the strongest response to undermining when it actually happens to them. Unfortunately, these employees are the ones companies wish to attract and retain; they have a high self-esteem, emotional stability and are considered otherwise resilient despite being more sensitive to supervisor undermining.
These findings lay the foundation for future studies to further understand the responses of victims of supervisor social undermining and other uncivil work behavior. Most importantly, it is evident that the most beneficial employees to a company are at the highest risk of experiencing stress and leaving the organization. It is in a company’s best interest to reduce undermining in the workplace completely to hold on to the most valuable employees.
But how can companies ensure they hold on to these employees?
Selection and job appraisals, including 360-degree appraisals, can be developed to detect managers who undermine – as can regular employee engagement surveys that can be linked to specific managers. Managers who are identified as undermining their employees should be provided with training to improve their leadership abilities. These training programs can be used to educate managers on how to identify undermining behaviors and stop them. If training fails, then the manager may need to be removed from their leadership position completely.
HR should also strive to create a work environment which fosters beneficial interpersonal interactions, working with line management to create a culture of trust and understanding; it is a high level of general trust in the workplace without the corresponding positive relationship with one’s direct supervisor which leads some employees to become stressed and ultimately leave the company.
Employees want to have their assumptions and beliefs verified. Organizations should act in a consistent manner and not create conditions of surprise or uncertainty, so employees feel understood. A consistently positive environment, with low undermining and high trust, will benefit both the company and employees.
If companies don’t monitor and eliminate supervisor undermining, they will continue to lose their best employees. As a result, they will have to spend more time and money on hiring, training and assimilating new employees to replace those who decide to leave.