When An Abusive Leadership Style Works

Regardless of the era or industry, society’s exposure to outspoken, abrasive, and sometimes cruel management tactics, has been a constant factor.

Industry leaders such as Steve Jobs, have seen their management styles perceived as abusive, mean, or cruel.

Amazingly, while some view managers like Jobs as abusive, others saw Jobs’ style as an extremely effective factor in the raising of their own performance at Apple.

How is it, then, that the aggressive management styles of some business leaders can be seen by some employees as abusive, while others find it motivating?  Personal perception would seem to be the defining factor of an employee’s reality.

Researchers have found that “social contextual factors” play a major role in determining how aggressive verbal and nonverbal behaviors are perceived as either abusive or motivating.

These are the factors that determine how an abusive leadership style is perceived.


How effective is leadership in the development of those being led?

A leader whose aggressive management style results in positive achievements and successful task completion, will be viewed more favorably.

Even when the leader’s style involves harsh and aggressive criticism, positive results turn the management tactics into a motivating factor, and not abuse.

Perhaps the most obvious, and visible example would be Steve Jobs. Jobs’ leadership style was brought into question when Apple struggled, but seen as a highly effective example of leadership as Apple became hugely successful.


Is the leader seen as trustworthy?

Trust in leadership can go a long way toward determining the amount of “abuse” an employee will put up with.

Trust can turn the perception of abuse (e.g. “he’s just trying to bully me into accomplishing the impossible”), into one of motivation (e.g. “He thinks I am capable of a higher quality of work”).

Employees who trust their supervisor tend to take a positive view of comments which could be viewed as either abusive or motivational.


Do the motives of leadership seem transparent and honest?

When a leader’s actions are explained with genuine reasons, their employees are more inclined to give them the benefit-of-the-doubt.

Even harmful moves, undertaken by leadership, can be viewed by employees as honest mistakes, when leadership has displayed a level of fairness.


How do co-workers feel about leadership?

No matter how hard we may try to remain grounded in our own perceptions, the perceptions of others still can play a part in how leadership and management are viewed.

Remarks about leadership, from team members and co-workers, can reveal a wide range of treatments and experiences at the hands of leadership.  Depending on how those experiences are relayed (abusive or fair) can go a long way in forming general opinions.


Whether you’re deciding on the appropriateness of your own management style, or evaluating the the style of another person, it is useful to keep these factors in mind. They can help you make a proper evaluation of the situation and  decide on the best approach.

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