The blurred line between motivation and abuse

One academic warns that the prevailing views about high-performance workplaces are "dangerously simplistic"

Where’s the line between motivation and abuse? Today, most leaders and HR executives would agree that it’s desirable to create a high-performance workplace — but some dissenting voices warn that if you’re not careful, you could end up abusing the very employees upon whom you depend.

Writing in Understanding the High Performance Workplace, Ohio State University’s Bennett J. Tepper warns of the “sometimes blurry line between leader pressure to perform and leader abuse and I would argue that one of the reasons the line is sometimes difficult to see is that we as a society view abusive leader behavior as an effective management technique”.

According to Tepper, there is a “widely embraced lay belief” that abusive leadership itself can be a “high performance work practice”. Pepper cites as an example a Harvard Business Review Blog article that defends the practice of leaders yelling at subordinates.

“The author’s conviction notwithstanding, his notion belies the evidence from 15 years of empirical research suggesting that abusive leadership undermines individual and unit effectiveness,” Tepper writes.

Tepper insists that there is “no support for the idea that outcomes get better” as leaders become more abusive. While he admits that the debate is nuanced and not every highly motivated manager is abusive, Tepper warns that the prevailing views about high-performance workplaces are “dangerously simplistic".

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