• Submissive employees;
  • core self-evaluations;
  • co-worker support;
  • downsizing;
  • abusive supervision;
  • performance

For the past decade, researchers' attention to abusive supervision (Tepper, 2000, Acad. Manage. J., 43, 178) has grown consistently. However, little is still known as to why certain individuals are picked by supervisors as targets for abuse. Our study tests a model of antecedents of abusive supervision, building on the profile of submissive employees (Aquino & Lamertz, 2004, J. Appl. Psychol., 89, 1023) and examining the potential role played by the work context. With a sample of 193 employee–supervisor dyads from downsized and non-downsized organizations, we found that as core self-evaluations and coworker support decreased, abusive supervision increased, particularly in downsized organizations, and this effect carried over to both in-role and extra-role performance. Using a displaced aggression framework (Hoobler & Brass, 2006, J. Appl. Psychol., 91, 1125), our study contributes to the discussion of the antecedents of abusive supervision by emphasizing the roles played (1) by the victim and (2) by the context in which these events take place.

Practitioner points

  • Supervisors aim their abusive behaviours at subordinates that appear particularly vulnerable and submissive.
  • Strategies to prevent/reduce supervisory abusive behaviours in organizations should also focus on empowering subordinates themselves not just on training supervisors.
  • Downsizings are particularly powerful triggers of abusive supervision as they enhance the vulnerability and exposure of submissive employees.