A boss yells at his employee. The employee is afraid to lose his job and stays silent about it. And the abusive behavior continues. It's a vicious cycle — and a problem that's hurting businesses, says Christian Kiewitz, professor of organizational theory and behavior.
Kiewitz is an expert on workplace aggression and abusive supervision — sustained hostile behavior by a supervisor toward a subordinate that does not include physical violence. While shootings in the workplace make headlines, Kiewitz said it's much more common for workers to experience low-level aggressive incidents.
"Your boss yells at you. Your co-worker doesn't forward an important email to you or keep you in the loop. Somebody might sabotage you," he said. "For most employees, experiencing physical workplace aggression or violence is not the norm. Instead what we experience is hostility."
"But you have to look at: Why is it that people keep silent? Silence is intentionally withholding information, so the motive behind the silence is really important."
While researchers have long focused on employees who speak out, looking at silence is something newer.
"The assumption was silence is the absence of voice," Kiewitz said. "But you have to look at: Why is it that people keep silent? Silence is intentionally withholding information, so the motive behind the silence is really important."
He explains when subordinates remain silent because they fear their managers, it also results in more abusive supervision down the road. The effects can include people leaving, sabotaging their bosses or losing their emotional attachment to the company – all problematic for the organization.
While his research does not prescribe what to do in cases of abusive supervision, Kiewitz explains one way to break the cycle is to get top management involved. "It comes back to what kind of a culture you want to have in your organization. The best way of dealing with abusive supervisors is not to have them in the first place."