Understanding Abusive Supervision through Attachment Bonds

September 26, 2019

Jennifer Robertson, Associate Professor, DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies

Story and Photo by Rob Rombouts

Abusive supervision can have extreme consequences for both employers and organizations, creating unnecessary stress and increased burnout and turnover, and a decrease in employee and organizational performance. A paper by Jennifer Robertson has investigated whether the roots of abusive supervision may lie in supervisors’ perceptions of themselves, others and relationships that are developed during infancy.

Robertson, Associate Professor in the DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies, and co-authors, have investigated this relationship in a paper entitled, “Linking Attachment Theory to Abusive Supervision”. Now that paper, which was recently published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, has received an Emerald Literati Award, recognized as a highly commendable paper of 2019.

Attachment Theory, developed in the field of Developmental Psychology, suggests that our early interactions with primary care-givers can impact how we view ourselves and others through life. If, when an infant cries or calls for attention, their care-giver responds consistently, the infant will develop secure attachment, and see themselves and others in a positive way. On the other hand, if the care-giver does not respond, or responds inconsistently, the infant will develop insecure attachment and see themselves and/or others negatively. Importantly, these perceptual views can impact how we approach relationships, including those in the workplace.

In the study, Robertson and her colleagues predicted that a leader’s attachment orientation, conceptualized as ones’ comfort with closeness and ability to depend on others, will impact their social self-efficacy, which in turn, will lead to abusive supervisory behaviour. To investigate these relationships, the authors used survey results from subordinate-leader dyads. Subordinates rated their leaders’ abusive supervision, while the supervisors completed measures of their levels of social self-efficacy and attachment.

The study found that supervisors’ who are comfortable with closeness and can depend on others (are securely attached) had higher levels of social self-efficacy, while those who were anxious about closeness and depending on others had low levels of social self-efficacy. In turn, leaders with low social self-efficacy beliefs engaged in higher levels of abusive supervision, such as hostility, anger and ridicule.

While previous research has shown abusive supervision has been the product of social learning, identity threat or poor self-regulation, the research by Robertson and co-authors shows it may also be impacted by our beliefs of the self, others and their ability to cultivate positive social interactions.

“In order to address it, we need to understand how managers think about their relational capabilities,” said Robertson. “We know that attachment orientations can change so we can use this information to train managers to have more positive beliefs about their relationships and about social self-efficacy, for example through cognitive behavioural therapy.”

Emerald Literati Awards are selected by the Editorial Boards of Emerald’s journals, in this case, the Journal of Managerial Psychology, with three papers elected for their outstanding contribution to scholarly work. The winning papers are considered well-written and reflect rigour in terms of argument and analysis.

In 2016, Robertson’s paper, “Greening Organizations Through Leaders’ Influence on Employees’ Pro-Environmental Behaviors,” received an Emerald Citation of Excellence.

As part of receiving this honour, Emerald publishing has made the article free to download for one year and can be found here: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMP-11-2017-0399/full/html