Could you be an abusive boss? It's possible.

Even small stressors could cause you to lash out at employees

Nobody wants to think of themselves as an abusive boss. But it turns out that many leaders are teetering uncomfortably close to the edge of offending behavior, four associate professors write in Harvard Business Review.

Abusive supervision makes workplaces toxic, unpleasant places to be. This behavior even takes a financial toll on companies, with research suggesting that U.S. corporations lose $23.8 billion each year as a result of abusive supervision.

But surely you're not an abusive boss, right?

According to Mary Mawritz of Drexel University, Rebecca Greenbaum of Oklahoma State University, Marcus Butts of the University of Texas at Arlington, and Katrina Graham of Suffolk University, you may want to think again. They explain that it doesn't take much to provoke abusive behavior. Lack of sleep or work-family conflicts can make bosses more likely to act harshly—even toward their top employees.

The authors point to their own research that suggests top performers at an organization who slip up are actually most at risk of feeling their boss' wrath. That's because bosses may feel conflicted about what to make of an excellent employee who misbehaves. It's a confusing experience that can cause a boss to lash out, the authors write.

Another source of stress for bosses is meeting bottom-line targets. Bosses who make this a priority may abuse employees who don't do enough to support the goal.

Any boss could be abusive under the right circumstances, write the professors, which is why it's so important to be mindful of factors that could provoke bad behavior. The authors recommend doing everything in your power to nip stressors in the bud, from simply getting sufficient sleep to separating your personal life from your professional one.

If you feel like you're ready to explode, take a break and try not to interact with your employees until you've calmed down. Talk yourself down so that you can approach a situation with a cool head. 

How to improve your relationship with a frustrating boss

"By being thoughtful about these situations and working to improve your willpower, you can more effectively avoid the high costs of abusive supervision and improve your effectiveness as a manager," the authors conclude (Mawritz et al., Harvard Business Review, 10/14). 

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