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Female Managers Facing Family-Related Stress Are More Likely to Abuse Subordinates


by Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern

Organizations should be aware of what may be going on outside of managers’ work

By Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern

Balancing family and work is a complex issue, with a mountain of research showing that family-related stress often impedes employees’ ability to perform well in their jobs.

New research conducted by Stephen Courtright and coauthors Richard Gardner and Troy Smith, all of Texas A&M University, and Brian McCormick of the University of Iowa found this oft-observed conflict between family and work can also be a main reason why some managers, particularly female managers, are verbally abusive toward subordinates.

“Past research has attributed the occurrence of abusive supervision to characteristics of the work environment or the personality traits of the supervisor,” Courtright explained. His study suggests, however, that even though these factors may play a part in triggering abusive supervision, so do factors related to managers’ home life.

“Our study basically examined whether managers are more verbally abusive toward subordinates when work goals and work routines are disrupted by family-related matters,” Courtright said. “We also wanted to identify conditions in which this so-called ‘family-work conflict’ is most likely to trigger abusive supervision.”

Courtright conducted the study on a sample of 142 entry- and midlevel managers at a Fortune 500 company. Questionnaires distributed over a 4-month period asked managers to indicate how frequently family demands conflicted with their ability to perform effectively at work. Employees were then asked how often their manager berated them in front of others or questioned their ability and work.

The results of the study showed that female managers verbally abused their subordinates to a greater extent than their male counterparts when family issues interfered with work. However, whether female managers responded to family-work conflict with abusive supervision also depended on how much autonomy they had to carry out their leadership responsibilities without strict oversight from their own bosses.

“Female supervisors with lots of job autonomy were more likely to abuse their employees when experiencing family-work conflict,” Courtright added.

He suggested several possible reasons for the findings of the study.

“Abusive supervision is a type of stress coping strategy. So, when supervisors are facing family-related stress, they may yell at or insult their subordinates as a way to express frustration with their family demands and pressures,” Courtright explained.

This pattern of behavior, particularly for female supervisors, may be related to the way men and women have traditionally approached family and work roles.

“Men on average view their work as more imperative than family demands, making it easier for men to separate family from work and experience less stress at work when family challenges do arise,” Courtright said. “Women, however, on average shoulder more burdens related to home life.”

As a result, women may experience stronger negative emotions at work when family challenges occur because they have a more difficult time being able to separate family and work roles, Courtright said, citing past research on traditional gender roles at home and work.

Courtright also cited other research showing that, in comparison to men, women tend to dwell for longer periods of time on negative emotions and they initiate more social interactions when experiencing family-related stress, which allows for negative emotions to be expressed more often toward subordinates. This is where leadership differences may come into play for men and women when they experience family-related stress, he said.

However, high job autonomy, which is the freedom to independently determine how to carry out aspects of one’s job, also becomes a factor, Courtright explained. Female supervisors with greater job autonomy essentially have the power to take their frustration out on employees with less fear of being caught or punished for doing so. But this is not the case for supervisors who have little autonomy and are constantly being monitored by their superiors, which may discourage abusive behavior, he said.

Courtright believes the main implication of his research is for organizational leaders to understand there is a broader range of factors that play a role in triggering abusive leadership than is often considered.

“We statistically controlled for workplace stressors and personality characteristics previously linked to abusive supervision,” Courtright said. “However, even after accounting for all those things, family-work conflict was a key determinant of abusive supervision for female supervisors and most especially for female supervisors with high job autonomy.”

Organizational leaders need to be cognizant of what kinds of issues managers, particularly female managers, may be facing outside of work in their home, Courtright explained.

“As organizations try to curtail abusive supervision, or better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place, they need to understand the possibility that such behavior can stem from factors related to the supervisor’s family situation,” he stated. “This understanding obviously doesn’t excuse the occurrence of abusive behavior, but it may help organizations to identify its potential source.”