Beyond Mistreatment at the Relationship Level: Abusive Supervision and Illegitimate Tasks

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Apr 15;17(8):2722. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17082722.


According to the concept of abusive supervision, abusive supervisors display hostility towards their employees by humiliating and ridiculing them, giving them the silent treatment, and breaking promises. In this study, we argue that abusive supervision may not be limited to mistreatment at the relationship level and that the abuse is likely to extend to employees' work tasks. Drawing upon the notion that supervisors play a key role in assigning work tasks to employees, we propose that abusive supervisors may display disrespect and devaluation towards their employees through assigning illegitimate (i.e., unnecessary and unreasonable) tasks. Survey data were obtained from 268 healthcare and social services workers. The results showed that abusive supervision was strongly and positively related to illegitimate tasks. Moreover, we found that the relationship between abusive supervision and unreasonable tasks was stronger for nonsupervisory employees at the lowest hierarchical level than for supervisory employees at higher hierarchical levels. The findings indicate that abusive supervision may go beyond relatively overt forms of hostility at the relationship level. Task-level stressors may be an important additional source of stress for employees with abusive supervisors that should be considered to fully understand the devastating effects of abusive supervision on employee functioning and well-being.

Keywords: abusive supervision; hierarchical level; hostility; illegitimate tasks; task-related supervisory behavior; unnecessary tasks; unreasonable tasks.

MeSH terms

  • Bullying*
  • Female
  • Hostility*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Personnel Management*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires