How to Reduce Peer Aggression and Abusive Supervision using Formalised Work Structures
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How to Reduce Peer Aggression and Abusive Supervision using Formalised Work Structures

Formalised work structures

Hostile, aggressive and abusive forms of leadership and supervision

Hostile, aggressive and abusive forms of leadership and supervision are all too common in many businesses and organisations. Sustained hostile behaviour towards subordinates that includes non-verbal and verbal actions, such as:

  • ridiculing employees
  • labelling their feelings and thoughts as stupid
  • disrespecting employees in front of their peers

can cause a range of negative outcomes, such as:

  • Increased employee turnover
  • Poor and antagonistic attitudes towards tasks, work, the management and leadership and the organisation as a whole
  • Reduced employee performance
  • The depletion of employee engagement and energy
  • An increase in negative employee behaviour, for example aggression towards peers

Power imbalances

Power imbalances tend to make it hard for abused employees to fight back and protect themselves from supervisors or even to defend themselves. Victims of management and leader bad behaviour often redirect their anger, frustration and hurt towards the only release available – their co-workers. This makes interpersonal deviant behaviours, such as aggression, common across many workplaces. Whilst organisations should have policies in place to prevent and punish abusive behaviour, these steps alone rarely prevent it.

Reducing abuse

Formalised work structures

The way an organisation is structured can have a significant impact on social interactions. Formalisation refers to how standardised the:

  • written rules
  • operating procedures
  • instructions
  • methods of communication
  • organisational and reporting structures

are throughout an organisation, which can influence employee behaviour. There are two types of formalisation:

  1. Coercive work structures that limit employees’ autonomy and their ability to be creative or innovative, which tends to increase negative emotions and behaviour in response to restrictive rules and processes.
  2. Enabling work structures, which reduce confusion about rules of conduct and behavioural expectations, whilst enhancing operational transparency of work processes, and help people take responsibility.

Enabling formalised work structures are usually more beneficial for employees and the organisation. They do not stifle autonomy and make it clear that harmful interpersonal behaviour, such as aggression towards subordinates and peers, is unacceptable.

Every employee has exhaustible personal resources, energy, time and ability to focus. Abusive supervision has been found to seriously deplete an employee’s ability to regulate their own emotions and associated actions.

Formalised work structures and rules
Having and understanding the rules

Role conflict and role ambiguity

Personal resource depletion can also be aggravated by role conflict and role ambiguity, as both increase uncertainty. Role conflict occurs when employees perceive inconsistencies between expected task requirements and other organisational policies/standards. Role ambiguity refers to the uncertainty employees experience when they are unsure about what they are meant to be doing and what they are responsible for. Both reduce clarity related to behavioural standards in an organisation.

Previous research

Previous research looking at the effects of supervision on employee personal resources and the influence of formalised work structures has found that:

  • Many employees have experienced some form of aggressive behaviour from their superiors which has caused them to leave their jobs.
  • Work structures can either enhance or reduce the aggressive responses of employees to abusive supervisor behaviour.
  • When personal resources have been depleted by abusive supervisors, employees also tend to struggle with regulating their actions to conform to the behavioural standards of the organisation. Additionally, depleted personal resources increase aggressiveness towards peers.
  • Enforcing proper rules of conduct can significantly reduce and prevent aggressive counter-responses to management misbehaviour.
  • All forms of formalisation can help reduce deviant behaviour in the workplace.
  • Employees report low job satisfaction and organisational commitment when supervisors display deviant behaviours.
Formalised work structures
Formalised work structures and managers taking responsibility

A new study

A new study by researchers from Villanova University, the University of Central Florida, Louisiana State University, and the University of Georgia in the U.S. has looked at how formal workplace structures can be used to reduce aggressive behaviour.


The study found that:

  • Formalisation of work structures generally reduces aggressive reactions to abusive supervision, regardless of whether those structures are coercive or enabling.
  • Enabling formalised work structures were found to reduce the negative impact of role ambiguity on employee behaviour. This tends to be because structure provides clarity about behavioural norms, responsibilities and duties.
  • The guidance provided by formal work structures can also help abused employees to maintain positive behaviour and tends to reduce ‘knock on’ aggression towards peers, even when they have fewer personal self-regulation resources.
  • When role ambiguity decreases work standards tend to be more clearly defined, which can restrict the number of employees engaging in destructive, aggressive behaviour towards peers in response to abuse from supervisors.

Based on these findings, organisations should:

  • Implement zero-tolerance policies against abuse and abusive management practices.
  • Make cautious adjustments to increase the number of enabling formal work structures; large-scale change in work structures can be destabilising and increase negative employee reactions, as well as abusive supervisor behaviour, due to stress.
  • Limit modifications to areas that impact role ambiguity.


Priesemuth, M., Schminke, M., Bigelow, B., & Mitchell, M. (2022). A Light at the End of the Tunnel: How the Right Workplace Structure Can Help Disrupt the Negative Impact of Abusive Supervision. Human Performance, 1-23.

A new study on toxic supervisor behaviours and employee silence

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