Drill Sergeant Bosses Don't Get the Job Done - Pacific Standard

Drill Sergeant Bosses Don't Get the Job Done

Even if they think it's meant to motivate, workers respond badly to workplace abuse.
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(Photo: Marines/Flickr)

(Photo: Marines/Flickr)

"I done some checkin'. I looked through your files. I know about your mama. Hey, don't you eyeball me, boy! I know your father's a alcoholic and a whore chaser. That's why you don't mesh, Mayo, because deep down—don't you eyeball me boy!—deep down inside, you know the others are better than you. Isn't that right, Mayo?" That's Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, in an Oscar-winning performance by Louis Gossett Jr. in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. It's unclear whether Foley, who came to define the hard and mean yet loving drill sergeant stereotype, is trying to motivate Richard Gere's Zack Mayo or simply humiliate him into quitting.

In the movie, Mayo completes his training. But in real life, a team of researchers argue, Foley's behavior could backfire, whatever the intentions: Employees with abusive supervisors are more likely to slack off and more likely to return their bosses' favor by publicly ridiculing them.

It's clear that workplace abuse doesn't make for happy workers, and that can cost businesses quite a lot of money—as much as $24 billion a year in the United States according to one estimate.

It's clear that workplace abuse doesn't make for happy workers, and that can cost businesses quite a lot of money—as much as $24 billion a year in the United States according to one estimate. But maybe the costs aren't so bad if employees believe their bosses mean well. Kevin Eschleman and colleagues put the question to 268 people through the StudyResponse Project. Specifically, their survey asked participants how often their supervisors abused them—putting them down in front of others or ridiculing them, for example—as well as how often they'd engaged in counterproductive actions, such as making fun of their bosses at work or simply putting little effort into work. Crucially, they also asked how workers perceived the abuse. Perhaps, the team thought, put downs and ridicule could work if it was coming from the right place. Indeed, Eschleman says "we thought motivational intent would soften the blow" of abuse.

But it did not. Workers reported about the same frequency of counterproductive behavior at work when they felt abused regardless of what they thought their bosses were thinking. In fact, it mattered more whether abuse was intentional than whether it was hostile or motivational. When employees didn't think bosses were being particularly hostile or motivational, the amount of abuse had little effect on their behavior. That could be because without intent, workers could reasonably dismiss it. "Maybe it was accident, maybe they were having a bad day," Eschleman says.

Eschleman says the results could be important for manager training programs and for human resources departments trying to settle disputes related to workplace abuse. Mentioning any kind of intent, positive or negative, he says, "might be the wrong strategy." Still, Eschleman cautions that his team's study was small and might not apply in every working environment. "It might be interesting to explore this in the military or in other industries" where lives are on the line, such as medicine, he says.

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