“Get the hell off the stage!!” A bit of ‘harmless’ pushing to get the job done or abusive supervision?

Stacey scored her job as                     


by Florian Klonek

    An important negative aspect that Stacey identified in her job as a professional dancer is the way in which some artistic directors treat dancers. Artistic directors can be highly confrontational, ruthless and “straight-out mean”. Stacey described an event in which she had to jump into a routine as an understudy. Because she was struggling with the routine, the artistic directors started yelling at her - ‘Get the hell off stage! What are you doing? We have a gig in one hour. That (dancing) is shocking!’. Injury is no protection from the abuse: “You get criticized when you are injured and literally cannot use your leg because you are so much in pain”. 

Stacey’s descriptions of artistic directors relates to the concept of abusive supervision, defined as the extent to which followers perceive that their supervisor engages in ‘sustained display of hostile verbal and/ or nonverbal behaviours’ [1] . Sometimes, supervisors might actually be trying “to elicit high performance or to send the message that mistakes will not be tolerated” (p. 265). But irrespective of the supervisor’s motive or intent, if the behavior causes harm and is repeated, then the supervisor’s behavior is likely to classify as abusive. 

    Abusive supervision has severe negative consequences for those on the receiving end. These include decreased job satisfaction, emotional exhaustion, workplace deviance, job strain, and even aggression directed towards the supervisor )[2]. These negative consequences are reflected in how Stacey dealt with these situations. The comments of her artistic director affected her psychological well-being: “Sometimes, I didn’t cope with it, I crumble, go home and just… hide.”.  The abusive behaviour also impaired her job performance:

“You start second-guessing yourself because you think: Ok – I need to think about this better. But then your musicality is off because you are not actually listening to the music. (…) To me a good director – is someone who does not completely kill someone’s confidence. ... Is this making the dancers dance better? I don’t think so. … It is counterproductive”. 

One job resource that helped Stacey to deal with the supervisor criticism was the support of her dance team members. Her colleagues helped her to cope with the situation and sympathized with her by saying “He is an idiot. He just talked to me like this yesterday”. Several research studies confirm that co-worker support can attenuate the negative effect of abusive supervision on employee well-being [3] , although there is one study suggesting caution. This latter study showed that – when the support serves to remind the victim of the unpleasant experience - support from co-worker can actually make abusive supervision worse [4].

    Research on abusive supervision also indicates that some industries (i.e., healthcare and military) might be particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon – probably because these are industries that require extreme levels of commitment. For example, in the military, workers can experience behaviors like hazing or exposure to humiliating language. “The logic associated with these practices is that the process of humbling and stripping away the self-confidence of newcomers sets the stage for strong identification with the organization”. [2] 

While this phenomenon has been described in the military, we can only speculate if abusive supervision is especially prevalent in the performing arts arena, such as dancing. Stacey’s experience suggests it might well be. And if it is, rather than building strong commitment to the job, such cruel behavior is actually more likely to cause talented dancers to leave the profession prematurely. As Stacey recalled some dancers “just walk away as its simply too tough”.


 [1] Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43: 178-190.
 [2] Tepper, B. J. (2007). Abusive supervision in work organizations: Review, synthesis, and research agenda. Journal of Management, 33(3), 261-289.
 [3] For example, see: Hobman, E. V., Restubog, S. L. D., Bordia, P., & Tang, R. L. (2009). Abusive supervision in advising relationships: Investigating the role of social support. Applied Psychology, 58(2), 233-256.
 [4] Wu, T., & Hu, C. (2009). Abusive supervision and employee emotional exhaustion: Dispositional antecedents and boundaries. Group Organization Management, 34, 143–169