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Linking attachment theory to abusive supervision

Jennifer L. Robertson (DAN Department of Management and Organizational Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)
Angela M. Dionisi (Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada)
Julian Barling (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 26 June 2018

Issue publication date: 10 July 2018




The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of leaders’ attachment orientation and social self-efficacy on the enactment of abusive supervision.


Data were obtained from a sample of leader-subordinate dyads (n=114), and were collected using a Panel Service.


The results show that a Close/Depend attachment orientation was negatively associated with abusive supervision, while an Anxious attachment orientation was positively associated with abusive supervision. Social self-efficacy mediated these relationships.

Research limitations/implications

The results generate a deeper understanding of the etiology of destructive leadership. Applying attachment theory to the study of abusive supervision also offers a new theoretical perspective on potential precursors of this behavior.

Practical implications

The findings suggest organizations might benefit from attempts to alter leaders’ destructive attachment orientations, and by extension, reduce their abusive behavior. It may also be possible to reduce the occurrence of abusive supervision by implementing leadership development initiatives aimed at enhancing leaders’ confidence in their social skills.

Social implications

By identifying several potential precursors to abusive supervision, this study highlights possible points of intervention to combat a form of leadership that is linked with employee suffering. Thus, the findings can be used to help improve the working lives of those who are affected by this destructive workplace behavior.


Until now, research has not considered leaders’ attachment orientation as an antecedent to abusive supervision, nor has it explored the meditational role of social self-efficacy. The use of leader-follower dyads in this study also helps reduce issues related to social desirability biases and common method variance.



This work was supported by a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Grant No. 435 2012 1737).


L. Robertson, J., Dionisi, A.M. and Barling, J. (2018), "Linking attachment theory to abusive supervision", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 33 No. 2, pp. 214-228.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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