Constantin Lagios, Master Degree, Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain; Florence Stinglhamber, PhD, Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain; Gaëtane Caesens, PhD, Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain

The objective of the present research is to examine the trickle-down effects of organizational dehumanization (OD). Specifically, we argue that dehumanizing organizational treatments increase supervisors’ abusive behaviors toward their subordinates who will, in turn, display poorer well-being and negative attitudes.

OD refers to “the experience of an employee who feels objectified by his or her organization, denied personal subjectivity, and made to feel like a tool or instrument for the organization’s ends” (Bell & Khoury, 2011, p. 168). As a negative job demand (Caesens & Stinglhamber, 2019), OD has been shown to deleteriously affect employees’ well-being (e.g., increased emotional exhaustion) and attitudes (e.g., increased turnover intentions; Bell & Khoury, 2016; Caesens et al., 2017, 2019; Nguyen & Stinglhamber, 2018, 2020; Stinglhamber et al., 2021). However, it is currently unclear whether these detrimental consequences are limited to focal employees who perceive OD, or whether lower-level employees may also be impacted. In this regard, research on trickle effects (Wo et al., 2019) showed that a treatment from the organization as perceived by a supervisor can in turn influence the treatment that the supervisor provides to their subordinate (trickle-down effect). Integrating the trickle-down effects to the concept of OD, the aim of this research is to investigate the degree to which supervisors experiencing OD exhibit more undermining behaviors toward their subordinate who will subsequently report poorer well-being and negative attitudes.

To support these hypotheses, we draw on the displaced aggression framework (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000; Tedeschi & Norman, 1985). Displaced aggression is an affect-driven phenomenon whereby a mistreated individual chooses not to retaliate against the harm-doer (for fear of sanctions and retaliation) and shifts their frustration to easier and less powerful targets. Applying displaced aggression to organizational settings, we argue that supervisors who feel dehumanized by their organization will not retaliate against it, because it could lead to organizational sanctions such as demotions or layoffs. Instead, they will redirect their frustration toward their subordinates by engaging in abusive behaviors toward them (e.g., being rude or ridiculing them). We further hypothesize that supervisors’ abusive behaviors will in turn affect subordinates’ well-being and attitudes. Indeed, because abusive supervision is a chronic source of stress (Tepper, 2000) that consumes psychological resources (Zhang & Liao, 2015), we expect that abused subordinates will display poorer well-being (i.e., increased emotional exhaustion, psychological strains and decreased job satisfaction) and more negative attitudes (i.e., increased turnover intentions and decreased affective commitment). Overall, we thus hypothesize that dehumanizing organizational treatments will trickle down to influence the subordinates through their effects on the supervisors.

Data were collected from 182 dyads consisting of the supervisors and their subordinates via online questionnaires. Supervisors reported their own perceptions of OD while subordinates reported their perceptions of abusive supervision, emotional exhaustion, psychological strains, job satisfaction, affective commitment, and turnover intentions. All variables were measured using validated scales (e.g., OD, 11 items, Caesens et al., 2017; abusive supervision, 15 items, Tepper, 2000).

Results of SEM and bootstrap analyses showed that dehumanizing organizational treatments were positively associated with supervisors’ abusive behaviors toward their subordinates. In turn, these abusive behaviors from the supervisors were shown to negatively influence subordinates’ well-being (i.e., positively related to emotional exhaustion and psychological strains, and negatively related to job satisfaction) and attitudes (i.e., positively related to turnover intentions and negatively related to affective commitment).

Our research extends prior work by highlighting for the first time the trickle-down effects of OD. Specifically, based on matched supervisor-subordinate data, the results showed that the negative consequences of OD are not limited to the focal employees who perceive it and that lower-level employees can also be impacted.

Despite these compelling findings, several limitations must be acknowledged. First, the results were obtained using cross-sectional data and causal conclusions cannot be drawn. Second, our sample was composed of Belgian respondents, which may limit the generalizability of the findings.

By demonstrating that OD has deleterious consequences at multiple levels of the organizational hierarchy, our research carries practical implications for organizations. Indeed, given the pivotal role that supervisors’ displaced aggression plays in the trickle-down effects of OD, organizations should seek to implement training programs focusing on emotion management (e.g., Garc?a-Sancho et al., 2014).

Overall, our research indicates that dehumanizing organizational treatments increase supervisors’ abusive behaviors toward their subordinates who will subsequently display poorer well-being and negative attitudes. Future studies could extend our findings by examining (1) the individual and situational factors moderating the supervisor’s displaced aggression and (2) the trickle-out effects of OD.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Applied research, Basic research, Empirical study, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Organizational Practices, Social and Organizational Environment, Workplace Mistreatment and Threats, Workplace Mistreatment; Threats; and Violence