Steve M Jex Ph.D.

Thriving Under Stress

Interpersonal Mistreatment as a Work Demand

Employees can use mistreatment as an opportunity to thrive under stress

Posted Jun 25, 2015

In today’s workplace there are many demands or stressors faced by employees on a daily basis. In recent years, one of the most pervasive demands that employees have to cope with has been labeled interpersonal mistreatment by work stress researchers.  In reality interpersonal mistreatment is a broad term that ranges from rather mild disrespect or rudeness, to more serious acts such as consistent harassment, social exclusion, or verbal abuse.  In this entry I discuss some of the reasons interpersonal mistreatment occurs, common reactions to mistreatment, and finally if there are any instances where mistreatment provides opportunities for thriving.

One of the reasons cited by some for the rise in interpersonal mistreatment is that our society is generally becoming more and more uncivil.  While this could certainly be true, research on mistreatment in the workplace suggests that the causes are more complicated than that.  For example, it has been shown that those who are experiencing other workplace stressors such as a heavy workload, uncertainty about role responsibilities, and a lack of needed resources engage in higher levels of interpersonal mistreatment (Bowling & Beehr, 2006).  If viewed in this way, interpersonal mistreatment is sometimes nothing more than people taking out their anger and frustration on convenient targets; we’ve all probably yelled at our spouse or children at one time or another due to anger or frustration we have carried home from work. We also know that some types of people are more likely to mistreat others regardless of situation.  Individuals who are angered more easily, who experience anxiety and distress across situations, and who generally attribute hostile intent to the actions of others have been shown to be more likely to mistreat others regardless of the situation (Herschovis & Barling, 2010). A final cause of mistreatment is the organizational environment in which people work.  More specifically, organizations that allow employees to mistreat fellow employees without any consequences tend to have higher levels of mistreatment compared to organizations that do not tolerate these behaviors (Sliter, Jex, & Grubb, 2013).

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Source: Source: Hubspot/ Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License

The vast majority of studies on interpersonal mistreatment have focused on the reactions of “victims” of such behaviors.  Not surprisingly, mistreatment has generally been found to be associated with a number of negative outcomes.  For example, victims of mistreatment tend to dislike their jobs, experience heightened levels of anxiety and depression, tend to perform more poorly, and in many cases have a desire to leave their jobs altogether (Bowling & Beehr, 2006).  Interestingly, it has also been in more recent research that simply viewing a fellow employee can result in negative reactions on the part of the observer (Miner-Rubino & Cortina, 2007).  It has also been found that victims of workplace mistreatment may potentially take out their negative reactions on those outside of the workplace such as their spouse and children (Sakurai, Jex, & Gillespie, 2011).  Interpersonal mistreatment is also costly to organizations.  Harvard Business Review discusses the financial impact of incivility, such as reduced employee performance and lost time from work (Porath & Pearson, 2013).  

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Source: Source: Hubspot/ Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License

Given all of the negatives associated with interpersonal mistreatment, is there any possibility of something positive coming out of it?  I would argue that for severe forms of interpersonal mistreatment the answer is an unqualified “NO”.  Harassing, threatening, or verbally abusing others has no place in the workplace and those who experience such behaviors should bring it to the attention of someone in their  organization. However, for more mild forms of mistreatment, there may be some instances where they can have beneficial effects. Let me explain further.  Regardless of whether or not we intend to do so, most of us mistreat others on occasion—we’re rude to a grocery store clerk, we’re short with our spouse when we’re tired, or we fail to return a phone call from a friend. Therefore, when we occasionally experience mild forms of mistreatment from others it really provides an opportunity to reflect on how we treat others, and if we sometimes don’t treat others as well as we should, provides an opportunity to make changes. 

Another potential benefit of occasional mild forms of mistreatment from others is that it may provide an opportunity to develop higher levels of understanding and empathy for others.  Let me give you an example.  Early in my career there was a faculty member I worked with who was generally unpleasant to most people around her—rarely smiled, never said “hello” or made small talk with others.  Since I was a lowly, untenured faculty member I never felt comfortable asking anyone why she acted that way, and for the most part tried to avoid her.  Eventually I found out that she was caring for her husband who had serious health issues, which certainly explained why she wasn’t in the most jovial mood at work.  After that I felt awful for making negative assumptions about her, but the more general lesson I learned was this: We often do not know the difficulties that other people are facing in their lives, so when someone is rude or unpleasant, I at least try to give them the benefit of the doubt.  That’s not always easy to do, and in some cases giving people the benefit of the doubt can backfire, but I would argue that this is much better than assuming everyone has a negative intent. 

Workplaces often provide opportunities for people to mistreat each other; in most cases mistreatment is fairly mild, but in some cases may be more pervasive and severe.  Although levels of mistreatment may reflect more general societal trends, research has shown that people often mistreat others as a reaction to stressful working conditions, although some individuals may be more likely to mistreat regardless of the situation.  Considerable research has shown that reactions to being mistreated are typically negative, although witnessing others being mistreated may also have negative effects.  Despite the negatives associated with mistreatment, at times it does provide us with the opportunity to explore our own behavior toward others, and in some cases may help us to understand others better.

References

Bowling, N.A., & Beehr, T.A.  (2006). Workplace harassment for the victim’s perspective: A theoretical model and meta-analysis.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 998-1012.

Hershcovis, M.S., & Barling, J. (2010). Towards a multi-foci approach to workplace aggression: a meta-analytic review of outcomes from different perpetrators. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 24-44.

Miner-Rubino, K., & Cortina, L.M. (2007). Consequences of vicarious exposure to misogyny at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1254-1269.

Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013). The price of incivility. Harvard business review, 91(1-2), 115-121.

Sakurai, K., Jex, S.M., & Gillespie, M. (2011). Negative work-family spillover of affect due to workplace incivility. Japanese Association of Industrial/Organizational Psychology Journal, 25, 13-23.

Sliter, M.T., Jex, S.M., & Grubb, P. (2013). The relationship between the social environment of work and workplace mistreatment. Journal of Behavioral Health, 2, 120-126.