Abusive Managers Can Feel Remorse and Make Amends

by Nancy Ordman

What happens after a manager flies off the handle? Employee responses probably range from shock to anger. The effects of the managerial outburst will persist, for the rest of the hour or the rest of the day – or longer. How employees go forward will depend on a lot of factors, including the frequency or rarity of this kind of behavior and their internal resources.

New research from Michigan State University reveals that managers who exhibit an episode of abusive behavior ruin both their employees' workdays and their own. They are likely to try to compensate the next day for their bad behavior and reclaim their status as leaders.

A research team led by Russ Johnson, associate professor and lead author of the study, used the concept of moral cleansing to test a guilty manager’s response to an episode of abusive behavior. Moral cleansing is an individual’s attempt to restore his or her feelings of self-worth after transgressing. Transgression damages a person’s self-image. Cleansing seeks to eliminate negative feelings and rebuild self-image through an act or acts of compensation.

Johnson’s team surveyed both managers and non-managerial employees. Questions for managers elicited information on whether they were aware of their abusive behavior – many are, some are not – and whether those who recognized their behavior tried to compensate afterward. Employees answered queries about their managers’ willingness to make reparations.

Results indicated that when managers recognized their bad behavior, they engaged in moral cleansing activities. “In addition to feeling guilty after engaging in their own abusive behavior, the supervisors felt as though they lost ‘moral credit.’ To build that credit back up, they showed types of sympathetic, supportive and reparative behaviors toward their employees,” Johnson said. So the day after an outburst staff will reap the benefits of a manager behaving as he or she should.

In a workplace where managers both recognize their abusive behavior and are motivated to repair the damage to their staff and to their own self-image, providing managers with tools to avoid negative behavior would improve the environment.