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Fearless Idea 15: Break the Spiral of Abuse

Mar 15, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — An abusive boss can make work miserable for anyone, prompting defiant employees to retaliate or flee. New research co-authored by Hui Liao at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business shows a third option.

“Targets of humiliation, intimidation and verbal attacks can balance the dynamics over time and influence supervisors to mend strained relationships,” Liao says. “Sometimes that won’t happen, but a follower has more power than he or she might realize.”

Breaking the spiral of abuse starts with the understanding that bullies rely on an imbalance of power in their favor, but the needle can move in any dyad. “Power structures are malleable in the modern workplace, which opens two paths for an abused follower,” Liao says.

A subordinate can decrease his or her dependence on the supervisor, sending a simple message: “I don’t need you as much as you think.” Alternately and often simultaneously, a subordinate can increase the leader’s dependence on him or her, sending the reverse message: “You need me more than you think.”

The second option hinges on the follower’s ability to show the consequences of mistreatment in terms the supervisor understands, emphasizing why reconciliation serves the supervisor’s best interests. 

“When this happens, the leader is more likely to regard the abused follower as someone who is instrumental to his or her pursuit of goals and resources, resulting in not only a reduction in future abuse, but reconciliatory efforts from the abusive leader,” write the coauthors in their paper, conditionally accepted at the Academy of Management Journal. 

Follower-controlled goals might include higher employee performance, while follower-controlled resources might include follower expertise. “Power dynamics change when abused parties in any type of relationship realize their worth and stop seeing themselves as helpless,” Liao says.

Read more: Wee, E., Liao, H., Liu, D., & Liu, J. (conditional acceptance). Moving from abuse to reconciliation: A power-dependency perspective on when and how a follower can break the spiral of abuse. Academy of Management Journal.

Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management in the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Research interests: Leadership and human capital development; proactivity and creativity; service quality; high-performance work systems; organizational justice and inclusion.

Selected accomplishments: Cummings Scholarly Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (AOM)’s Organizational Behavior Division; Scholarly Achievement Award and Early Career Achievement Award from the AOM Human Resources Division; Dorothy Harlow Distinguished Paper Award from the AOM Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division. Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award from the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2017 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, culminating with the sixth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 30, 2017.

Other fearless ideas from: Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  |  Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Rachelle Sampson  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  Cynthia Kay Stevens  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang  |  PhD Candidates

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.