Workplace abuse has increased over the years. Tyrannical, bullying, undermining, public denigration behaviours and explosive outbursts in order to make subordinates get jobs done are not waning. Although abusive supervision may not necessarily involve physical attack on subordinates, the use of sustained hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours by supervisors do not normally go down well with employees. But do abusive behaviour actually help managers get things done?
A closer look at the Nigerian banking industry, for example, where these behaviours are prevalent, shows that this strategy may not have been very productive. In an effort to use such hostile behaviours to improve performance, managers may be inadvertently undoing the organisation. There is overwhelming research evidence suggesting that abused subordinates report greater job and life dissatisfaction, role conflict, and psychological distress, compared with their non-abused counterparts. Abusive supervision has also been identified as a major factor in counterproductive work behaviour. The increasing rate of employee-related fraud in many banks in Nigeria, for instance, is a strong pointer to the fact that all is not well in the sector.
It is not just about deviant behaviours. Bennett J. Tepper, a pioneer scholar of abusive supervision, and his colleagues at the Ohio State University and the University of Arkansas, after reviewing studies on abusive supervision, spanning over two decades, came to the conclusion that victims of abuse, report lower levels of job performance irrespective of their position in an organisation, their country or race. If this is the case, the use of abusive tactics to increase performance has failed to deliver the desired outcome. Arguably, the high labour turnover in the banking sector has a lot to do with negative supervisory behaviours in the industry. Despite these poor organisational outcomes, why then do managers still abuse their subordinates?
The reasons for supervisors’ engagement in abusive supervision could be attributed to what some scholars referred to as moral exclusion – i.e. how managers determine who should be fairly treated or not. Employees who are seen as high performers or of value, fall within the justice scope of the supervisor, and, therefore, are considered as deserving fair treatment; but individuals who fall outside the supervisor’s scope of justice are considered undeserving of such fair and just treatment. Thus, supervisors are seen to abuse low performing employees or those they perceive as having low utility value than those that are considered as high flyers and of value. But does this explain the situation in the banking industry in Nigeria?
Unsurprisingly, no one appears to be insulated from the hostile behaviours of most Nigerian bank managers. High-flyers, average performers, poor performers, and deviants are abused at will. The reason often portrayed is that ‘we are here and you are there’. Then what could be the reasons for such uncivilized behaviours? It is probably the case of lack of self-control or what we can refer to as self-regulation impairment. Managers who probably have low self-control or have depleted personal resources required to tackle day to day job activities then resort to the use of abusive supervision. It is obvious that supervisors who can regulate their emotions could restrain from the use of abusive words in trying to get co-workers under them to get things done.
Unfortunately, due to tight labour market, high unemployment rate, and inadequate social security net, Nigerian employees often appear to lack the capacity to confront and contain abuses. It is obvious that when people have options, very few people would stay in an organisation where they are continually abused by their supervisors. Unfortunately, too, it appears the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has been uninterested in such emerging trend of employee abuse. The interest of the apex bank in HR-related issues in the sector appears to focus mainly on regulation of appointment and tenure of directors and sometimes top management staff. The weak unions (or absence of trade unions) in the entire banking sector has also contributed to the sustenance of these negative and damaging behaviours of bank managers.
One compelling reason for addressing this issue is that the culture of abuse in the banking sector has become a threat to civility in organisations in both public and private sectors in Nigeria. It appears that the culture of employee abuse is growing in the banking sector and spreading to other sectors and even outside the work arena. From a displaced aggression paradigm, managers who are abused by their own supervisors are often unable to confront the too powerful top management staff. They would rather turn to and unleash their ‘venom’ on the weaker or less powerful supervisors or employees, who in the same manner, find whoever is under them to transfer the aggression to. If they cannot find any person within the organisation to vent their anger and frustration on, as the case for many lower level employees, they turn to their family members and whoever they have authority over. There are also possibilities that such culture of abuse is transferred to other organisations within and outside the banking sector as these managers and employees change jobs, leading to the spread of culture of abuse in the entire society. These postulations are backed by research evidence.
This is the time to do something urgently. Banks are losing resources due to poor performance and fraud committed by frustrated and disgruntled employees. The irony of the banking sector is that most of the banks have continued to grow in terms of profitability and overall returns on investment while the welfare of their employees has relatively continued to decline. If the CBN cannot do anything, it should, at least, focus its policies on establishing minimum standards for banks in terms of application of basic principles for treating employees as humans. With our very weak social protection mechanisms, bank workers need to be shielded through deliberate policies if we are to have sustainable growth in the sector. If bank managers cannot control their emotions and restrain from abusing their subordinates, employees could be provided with the necessary support to protect themselves and be able to show that abuse is not part of their job descriptions.
Ike Onyishi is a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and currently an Alexander von Humboldt research fellow at the University of Muenster, Germany. He tweets @OnyishiIke
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