Belligerent Bosses: Supervisors Threaten Employees during the Financial Crisis
Many employees report employers are increasingly using threats and intimidation tactics to cope with the financial crisis, according to a national study of leadership sponsored by the University of Phoenix Office of Research Support (ORS). “We’re told if we discussed layoffs or downsizing, we would be fired – immediately,” one worker said. Another individual observed, “Questions get you written up and/or fired.”
Belligerent behavior is a “disturbing leadership trend in the financial crisis,” according to researchers Dr. Ruby Rouse and Dr. Richard Schuttler (2009), who received a grant to study supervisor communication during the crisis. In the summer of 2009, 1,150 working adults in the United States evaluated the leadership and communication effectiveness of their supervisors. Open-ended comments from employees contained repeated descriptions of threatening communication, such as:
- “Be thankful you have a job.”
- “You can be replaced.”
- “There are lots of qualified people on the street who would love your job.”
- “You never know who will be gone tomorrow.”
Such statements remind workers their jobs are on the “chopping block.” According to Rouse, some supervisors seem to purposefully foster a “culture of fear” to maintain control during the financial crisis. One employee described how senior leaders “walk around the office and openly swear, throwing tantrums about how the clients are idiots and they’re not paying bills on time.” Not surprisingly, many employees said they complete work out of fear rather than positive motivation, Rouse said.
The study’s results suggested many leaders do not perform well during a crisis. While senior leaders are understandably concerned about organizational survival, Schuttler said the use of intimidation places employees and supervisors in adversarial roles, eroding organizational trust and leadership integrity.
Based on the findings, Rouse and Schuttler suggest senior leaders should:
- Assess the quality and tone of communication during times of crisis –Leaders, particularly during periods of high stress, should provide employees with opportunities to confidentially and anonymously report the use of threats and intimidation.
- Develop situational leadership skills – Leaders must be prepared to cope with unexpected events, as well as variables outside their control. Data from the University study of the financial crisis revealed many leaders were unprepared and/or unwilling to adapt to the emergent crisis situation. This rigidity by company leadership resulted in poor employee and organizational outcomes. Developing situational leadership skills could help managers at all levels improve employee morale during a crisis.
Dr. Ruby Rouse and Dr. Richard Schuttler are both researchers as well as faculty members with the School of Advanced Studies at University of Phoenix.Rouse, R. A., & Schuttler, R. S. (2009). Crisis communication: A national study of leadership during the financial crisis – Results. Retrieved September 1, 2009