Toxic work environments
Toxic work environments are as much a threat to an organisation from the inside as the external actions of competitors and market change. Leaders are responsible for establishing a positive, motivational and productive work environment and the entire organisation tends to suffer when they exhibit demeaning and damaging behaviour towards their employees. Criticising, bullying and even being unresponsive to employee’s needs, humiliating and degrading people are common examples of abusive supervisor behaviour. Such behaviour tends to increase reactions like employee silence.
Employee silence is the other side of employee voice and refers to a lack of or a reduced frequency or tendency of employees to participate in information sharing with supervisors and the intention to remain silent or not to voice concerns or observations.
Types of employee silence
There are two types of employee silence:
- Ineffectual silence –where employees remain silent because they believe that contributing ideas and opinions will not change the toxic work environment.
- Defensive silence – where employees choose not to speak and conceal information out of fear for their safety and a need to protect themselves from abusive supervisor behaviour.
The effect of self-efficacy and fear
Both types of employee silence can be damaging. Employees are a valuable source of information and creativity, which usually has a positive impact on decision-making processes. Any reduction in decision-making capacity or quality can reduce an organisation’s chances of survival, especially in a competitive market.
Whilst it seems that abusive behaviour has negative effects in the workplace, factors like employee self-efficacy and fear may mediate or impact the undesirable outcomes of toxic leadership and management behaviour.
Self-efficacy refers to the level of confidence people have in their skills and capabilities to achieve goals and solve problems when difficulties arise. Employees with higher levels of self-efficacy are likely to approach problems with their managers and leaders with more confidence and have a greater belief that they can change the situation and consequently may be more likely to choose to voice their concerns.
Similarly, employees who experience higher levels of fear and anxiety may feel more threatened by abusive supervisor behaviour and may, therefore, be more likely to remain silent.
Previous research on effects of toxic leadership and management
Previous research looking at the effects of toxic leadership and management have found that abusive leadership:
- Negatively impacts employee work engagement through increased employee silence.
- Promotes employee silence, which reduces employees’ abilities to provide satisfactory customer service.
- Fosters psychological distress among employees, which subsequently reduces how often employees share concerns about work-related problems.
- Causes employees to increasingly feel that they are being treated unfairly.
- Employees with higher levels of fear tend to engage in self-protection and avoidance behaviours such as defensive silence.
- Abusive leadership negatively impacts employee psychological safety and empowerment.
A new study
A new study by researchers from Akfa University in Uzbekistan, Yeungnam University in South Korea and Anyang Normal University in China has looked at how abusive behaviour from supervisors impacts employee silence in the workplace.
The study found that leaders who display abusive behaviour, such as raising their voice, shouting and engaging in demeaning and disrespectful behaviour towards their employees significantly increase employee silence. Workers tend to withhold observations and ideas to improve the organisation when supervisors regularly fail to value their input.
Self-efficacy, however, was found to moderate the effects of abusive behaviour on ineffectual silence:
- Employees with higher levels of self-efficacy have more confidence in their ability to change the work environment and, as a result, are more likely to speak to achieve personal goals.
- Employees with lower levels of self-efficacy are significantly less likely to engage in information sharing, due to a lack of confidence that their actions will inspire positive change.
Fear was also found to moderate the impact of abusive behaviour on defensive silence:
- Employees with more fear and higher levels of anxiety are significantly more likely to remain silent as an act of self-defence.
- Those who are less fearful are significantly more likely to risk speaking up more often.
Based on these findings, the researchers recommend that:
- Leaders establish disciplinary systems to reduce the misbehaviour of supervisors, with clear guidelines.
- Organisations ask for employee input about leadership and management quality.
- Training programmes designed to help employees master needed skills and improve their self-efficacy are provided.
- Leaders create a safe and open climate for employees by establishing open channels of communication.
Dedahanov, A. T., Abdurazzakov, O. S., & Sun, W. (2022). When Does Abusive Supervision Foster Ineffectual and Defensive Silence? Employee Self-Efficacy and Fear as Contingencies. Sustainability, 14(1), 231.
How to repair deviant, toxic corporate and organisational cultures – Special Report
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