Why are Leaders Perceived as Abusive: Evaluating the Definition of Abusive Leadership with an Experimental Examination Comparing Harmful Leader Intentions, Behaviors, and the Frequency of Leader Actions

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Abusive leadership, subordinates’ perceptions of the extent to which supervisors engage in systematic and repeated hostile behaviors that violate the interests of the organization, subordinates, or both, is a widespread issue with far reaching consequences. It is consequently vital for organizations to monitor and neutralize these behaviors, to improve the lives of individual employees and their overall company performance. Unfortunately, research on abusive leadership is muddled as many researchers have coined their own terms for similar behaviors and phenomena. The lack of clarity and agreement on the definition is a continual source of friction in this research area, and it presents a roadblock for practitioners seeking to reduce abusive leadership. The current research leveraged an experimental methodology to critically examine and refine the definition of abusive leadership through testing its three core assumptions. Drawn from the three core assumptions, three factors, leader intentions, the frequency of exposure to leader behavior, and the harm caused by leader behavior, were included to provide the first experimental test of the influence of each factor on perceptions of abusive leadership. A longitudinal design was utilized to model the influence of frequency of exposure, and leader intentions and the harm of leader behaviors were specifically manipulated in the study. Across five trials, 208 participants completed tasks and interacted with videos of a confederate leader. After each trial, participants provided ratings of their perceptions of the leader’s abusiveness. Results from a repeated measures ANOVA and an HLM growth model suggested strong support for the influence of leader intentions, harm of leader behaviors and frequency of exposure on perceptions of abusive leadership. Guidance for updating the definition of abusive leadership, theoretical and practical implications of the study, as well as future directions are also discussed