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Supervisors rely on personal attractiveness and political skills for leadership efficiency, NSYSU research shows


In the classic film The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda is a beautiful, classy, demanding, and crafty supervisor. How does she get her subordinates to love and hate her, sacrifice for her, work under high pressure, and accommodate unreasonable demands? The research team of the Director of the Institute of Human Resource Management (IHRM) Professor Nai-Wen Chi and his graduate students took the film The Devil Wears Prada as a starting point to examine how supervisors who exhibit abusive supervision behavior are able to maintain followers’ perceived leadership effectiveness and supervisor-directed helping. Although some supervisors tend to engage in abusive behaviors such as ridiculing subordinates for their incompetence and making fun of them in public, only a few of them are able to maintain leadership effectiveness and subordinates’ willingness to help them, by utilizing their physical attractiveness and political skills.

This research paper won the Editor’s Choice Award of the 2021 Management Concept and Application Conference. The research team conducted a questionnaire survey and collected data from 113 supervisors and 367 of their subordinates in the corporate world in Taiwan. The results of the study showed that supervisors with a higher level of physical attractiveness (well-dressed, physically well-built, with physical or overall attractiveness) are able to mitigate the detrimental effects of their abusive behaviors on follower perceived leader effectiveness and supervisor-directed helping.

However, the research also found out that when supervisors are high in self-rated political skills, they would further amplify the negative impacts of their abusive supervision behaviors on followers’ perceived leadership effectiveness and makes them more reluctant to take the initiative to assist their supervisors. If a supervisor who thinks he or she is calculating and good at influencing others and engages in abusive behavior, he or she may not only fail to maintain his or her leadership effectiveness in the minds of subordinates but even be negatively perceived.

Professor Nai-Wen Chi pointed out that many leaders of internationally renowned companies, such as Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos happen to have views coinciding with the results of the research. These leaders, who are often malicious to subordinates and even humiliate them in front of others, rely on their personal attractiveness to maintain their positive evaluation in subordinates’ minds.

This research, coordinated by Professor Nai-Wen Chi, is based on the master thesis by IHRM graduate Szu-Yin Chen – “Shrewd strategy or beautiful illusion? Exploring the impact of supervisor abusive supervision behavior on the perceived leadership effectiveness of subordinates – The moderating roles of supervisor political skills and physical attractiveness”. Initially, when this work was completed, to obtain further research results, Professor Chi collected more materials and led the doctoral students Wan-Ling Chien and Li-Chun Fang to submit the paper to the 2021 Management Concept and Application Conference. At present, the paper has also been submitted for publication to an academic journal. According to Szu-Yin Chen, literature shows that supervisors’ improper behavior can have a serious negative impact on subordinates on the personal, psychological, and physical level, and their work attitude. Organizations should strive to eliminate such negative leadership behavior. However, in the real world, there are still many such cases, and there is no lack of subordinates perceiving such abusive behavior as “good leadership”. It is expected that this research paper will make the industry more aware of the fact that some supervisors dilute their abusive behaviors with an attractive appearance, and that calculating and manipulative supervisors who engage in such behaviors will receive a negative evaluation from their subordinates.
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