Everyone has had experience with an unpleasant or mean supervisor. It could be a one-time thing, if the supervisor were having a very bad day and just couldn't help but snap when someone asked an innocent or mundane question. Or the bad boss experience could be the culmination of the daily drip-drip-drip of supervisor sneers and sarcasm that can make life miserable for everyone. This drip-drip-drip is what researchers call "supervisor undermining." Some may say that it is abusive supervision, but undermining captures the little things that supervisors and others in charge do that prevent their team members or employees from truly thriving.

The research team that I lead at Cornell University is conducting a survey that is trying to capture the early work experience of recent college graduates. Among the questions, we ask are things like, how much does your supervisor... "act in an unpleasant or angry manner toward you;" "make your life difficult;" and "show that he or she dislikes you." These items are drawn from work conducted by Amiram D. Vinkur and Michelle van Ryn.[1]

The survey items track the little actions that supervisor may engage in, perhaps unwittingly. Not only do actions matter, perceptions matter too. If the supervisor is having a particularly rough day, besieged by problems at work and at home, he or she should make an effort not to take out their bad mood on their employees. Some employees can slough temporary bad behavior off with "Oh, well, he's having a bad day." This is easy to do when the balance of the interactions with the supervisor has been upbeat. If this behavior on the part of the supervisor is chronic, it can color the perceptions, attitude, and motivation of employees.

Being the supervisor demands having some degree of a professional attitude in dealing with others, no matter what their role. Supervisors may sometimes forget that they can't do it alone, and that they need the help and support of others. It is to the supervisors' benefit to develop, motivate, and support the work of their employees and team members. And, not to sound like a line from your childhood, how would you like it if you were treated badly?

If you are a supervisor and you feel that you are not getting the most or the best from your employees, maybe it's time to engage in some self-reflection.[2]

Do you act in an unpleasant or angry manner toward your direct reports and team members? If what you view is brusque or professional, others may see as dismissive. You could be tone deaf and may come off as rude without knowing it.

Do you make life difficult for your direct reports or team? Do you change the rules or policies unilaterally in mid-stream and not bother to let them know? Do you keep important information about how they can do better do their job from them? "Work" isn't necessary supposed to be "easy," but supervisors do not need to be throwing out unnecessary curve balls to purposely trip up their team.

Do you show that you dislike your direct reports or team members? A supervisor doesn't necessarily have to like everyone, but it is incumbent on the supervisor to give everyone a fair shake in the workplace. A supervisor needs to be professional, and not show favor or disfavor, in dealing with team members.

Do you make your direct reports or team members feel unwanted? Do you make them feel like their work is useless or that a lower-order primate could do their job just as well? Do you deliberately shun certain team members or exclude them from meetings or after-work gatherings?

Do you criticize them? Correction and feedback is essential, and done correctly, can be accomplished without resorting to berating or name-calling.

Employees and team members, to call on a cliché, are people too. They don't have any less right to be present in the workplace than does the supervisor. It is much easier to motivate people and get them involved and engaged if the supervisor shows some thoughtfulness. This is not to say that she has to start every day with a box of donuts and free coffee for everyone, but it is to say that a cheery good morning is a good start.  Supervisors need to be aware their attitude and behavior is everything. They are responsible for the nuances, tone, and mindset that can motivate or depress others. These five self-reflective questions can help supervisors monitor their behavior and avoid the drips of negative supervision.


[1]Amiram D. Vinkur and Michelle van Ryn, "Social Support and Undermining in Close Relationships: Their Independent Effects on the Mental Health of Unemployed Persons," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, 65, 2, 350-359.

[2] Items drawn from Vinkur and van Ryn.