Drawing upon the “root cause” framework of poor leadership [9
], we argued that abusive supervisors’ displays of hostility are likely to extend to their employees’ work tasks. In particular, we suggested that illegitimate (i.e., unnecessary and unreasonable) tasks might be an additional form of abusive supervisory behavior that signals disrespect and devaluation to employees and proposed that abusive supervision is positively related to employees’ levels of unnecessary and unreasonable tasks. The results revealed strong positive relationships between abusive supervision and employees’ unnecessary and unreasonable tasks. Moreover, we found that hierarchical level moderated the relationship between abusive supervision and unreasonable tasks. For nonsupervisory employees (i.e., those at the lowest hierarchical level), abusive supervision was more strongly related to unreasonable tasks than for employees with supervisory responsibility (i.e., those at higher hierarchical levels). For unnecessary tasks, we did not find a moderating effect of hierarchical level.
5.1. Theoretical Implications
The findings of this study provide support for the notion that abusive supervision is not limited to relatively overt forms of hostility that occur at the relationship level but is also associated with task-level stressors [16
]. Theoretically, abusive supervision focuses on mistreatment from the supervisor at the relationship level [5
]. Although this focus on mistreatment at the relationship level is intentional, this study suggests that abusive behavior at the relationship level should not be seen separately from task-level stressors originating from abusive supervisors. Excluding abuse at the task level would mean neglecting an important additional source of stress for employees with abusive supervisors [20
]. To fully understand the devastating impact of abusive supervision on employees, the relationship-level perspective on supervisory abuse [5
] needs to be complemented by abusive supervisory behavior targeted at the employees’ work tasks [20
The “root cause” framework of poor leadership [9
] states that “the presence, absence, or intensity of particular stressors may be determined by the quality of leadership in the workplace (p. 95). In particular, poor leadership is not only a stressor in and of itself but also gives rise to other occupational stressors. Empirical research utilizing this framework has focused on supervisors’ influence on their employees’ traditional role stressors [37
]. We complement the “root cause” framework by showing that the behavioral repertoire of abusive supervisors also includes the assignment of illegitimate tasks. Although illegitimate tasks may be considered a specific form of role conflict, they add a qualitatively different dimension to role stress because they threaten the identity of the receiver of the abuse and elicit strong feelings of injustice [22
]. Thus, paying attention to the assignment of illegitimate tasks contributes to a better understanding of how abusive supervisors shape a stressful work environment for their employees.
Closely related to abusive supervision, the concepts of petty tyranny [39
] and supervisor undermining [40
] comprise different forms of task-related supervisory mistreatment. Petty tyranny includes relatively broad descriptions of “tyrannical” supervisory behaviors related to employees’ work, such as eliminating consideration and discouraging initiative [39
]. However, unlike abusive supervision, petty tyranny may not necessarily be viewed as hostile [5
]. Supervisor undermining refers to supervisor “behavior intended to hinder, over time, the ability to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, work-related success, and favorable reputation” [40
] (p. 332). For example, supervisor undermining includes a supervisor’s deliberate and intentional efforts to delay his or her employees’ work to make them look bad or slow them down. However, the perception of harmful intent, which is not a definitive characteristic of abusive supervision [5
], is a core aspect of supervisor undermining. Nonetheless, despite these conceptual differences, petty tyranny and social undermining may guide theorizing about the existence of other task-related forms of abusive supervisory behavior beyond illegitimate tasks and workload demands [20
Moreover, the findings of this study suggest that the form of abusive supervision may differ across organizational levels. Specifically, we found that abusive supervision was more strongly related to unreasonable tasks for nonsupervisory employees than for employees with supervisory responsibilities. For unnecessary tasks, we did not find a moderating effect of hierarchical level. This finding might be related to the differences in the extent to which supervisory employees may pass down their unnecessary and unreasonable tasks. In particular, an unreasonable task is unreasonable for a specific employee but may fit another employee’s job description [41
]. Thus, supervisory employees may release themselves from unreasonable task assignments from their abusive supervisor by delegating the tasks to a subordinate employee for whom the task may not be illegitimate. Given that there are no employees subordinate to them, nonsupervisory employees with abusive supervisors may not have this opportunity to delegate an unreasonable task to another, more suitable employee.
In contrast, unnecessary tasks are unnecessary, regardless of the organizational level at which the tasks occur. Since unnecessary tasks should actually not be performed at all, supervisory employees who are assigned unnecessary tasks from their abusive supervisor may therefore refrain from passing down these tasks, which may explain why we found no differences between supervisory and nonsupervisory employees in the associations between abusive supervision and unnecessary tasks. However, this explanation is speculative and has yet to be tested.
5.2. Practical Implications
The results of this study strengthen the need for organizations to reduce abusive supervision to avoid the far-reaching negative consequences of abusive supervisory behavior. When identifying abusive supervision in the workplace, organizations may not only focus on “traditional” forms of abuse at the relationship level such as yelling and humiliating. Rather, organizations should also pay attention to the assignment of illegitimate tasks as a less overt form of abusive supervisory behavior. Given that the results suggest that abusive supervision is more strongly related to unreasonable tasks for nonsupervisory employees than for employees with supervisory responsibility, this recommendation might be even more important at the lowest organizational level.
The findings may also be incorporated into training programs that aim to reduce abusive supervision in organizations. Such training should not only convey knowledge on how to prevent behavioral mistreatment at the relationship level but should also sensitize supervisors to the fact that illegitimate tasks are a significant source of stress for employees. Supervisors should be trained to consider the potential illegitimacy of the tasks they assign and to express respect in another way if an illegitimate task is inevitable.
5.3. Limitations and Future Directions
Several limitations should be considered when interpreting the findings. First, we cannot draw conclusions about the causality of effects. It is conceivable that the employees’ levels of illegitimate tasks influence their perception of the supervisor. Although abusive supervision comprises behaviors that are clearly abusive (e.g., yelling and screaming) and it seems less likely that employees with high levels of illegitimate tasks would perceive nonabusive supervisory behaviors as abuse, we cannot rule out the fact that the assignment of illegitimate tasks might result in employees perceiving higher levels of abusive behaviors from their supervisors. Therefore, we recommend future research to address the causality issue by using longitudinal and experimental study designs.
Second, the use of self-report measures raises concerns about common method variance [42
]. However, given that abusive supervision and illegitimate tasks refer to subjective perceptions, the focal person might be the most appropriate source of assessment. Importantly, the views of the focal person and other raters (e.g., supervisors, coworkers) may not necessarily converge [23
]. Nonetheless, to strengthen the findings, further research should try to collect data from different sources, such as by incorporating coworkers’ perspectives. In addition, introducing a time lag between the measurements may also help reduce the potential bias due to common method variance [42
Furthermore, the mechanisms explaining why abusive supervision is related to illegitimate tasks remain unclear. While it is conceivable that abusive supervisors intentionally assign illegitimate tasks to cause harm, high levels of illegitimate tasks may also be the result of the abusive supervisor’s poor supervisory skills (e.g., abusive supervisors’ lack of awareness of or concern for the consequences of their behavior) [9
]. In addition, supervisors may have performance motives for their actions and (carelessly) assign illegitimate tasks to get urgent tasks done.
On a related note, it is important to recognize that illegitimacy is not inherent in tasks [22
]. Rather, tasks become illegitimate in a specific context. Previous research has shown that supervisors’ framing (e.g., acknowledgment) may mitigate employees’ perceptions of illegitimacy [43
]. Such framing effects may also occur in the context of abusive supervision. The fact that a task is assigned by an abusive supervisor might increase the extent to which employees perceive this task as illegitimate. Thus, the close association between abusive supervision and illegitimate tasks may partly be a perceptual phenomenon. Nonetheless, the stress originating from the assignment of illegitimate tasks is real and likely to impair employee functioning and well-being.
Finally, in terms of future research, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at the causes and mechanisms for explaining why the assignment of unreasonable tasks is more strongly related to abusive supervision for nonsupervisory employees than for employees with supervisory responsibility. Theoretically, we have offered several explanations for this difference, which center around the notion that supervisors at different organizational levels have different tasks, responsibilities, and opportunities. To obtain a better understanding of why the forms of supervisory abuse differ across organizational levels, we recommend future studies to test these explanations.