A look from a boss can’t kill, but it can slay trustworthiness


It’s a Monday morning at work and you’re sitting at your desk. Your boss is walking by, but then he stops, leans over, makes eye contact with you, gives you a smile and says, “I guess slackers like you find it OK to show up late.” This leaves you unsettled, but was it because of what he said or how he said it? Researchers at The University of Akron have found the answer.

Andrew Rancer

Dr. Andrew Rancer

Dr. Andrew S. Rancer and Dr. Yang Lin, professors in the School of Communication, along with former graduate student Joseph E. Lybarger, conducted a research experiment about the effects of a supervisor’s verbally aggressive language combined with engaging nonverbal behavior in the workplace. Their findings were published in Communication Research Reports earlier this year.

New approach

“I have been studying verbal aggression for a large part of my career,” says Rancer, “but this is the first study that combines verbal aggression with nonverbal immediacy.” 

Participants in the study were shown one of four different videos of a boss addressing a subordinate about poor job performance. The videos included the boss using aggressive language and engaging nonverbal behavior, not using them at all, or using one but not the other.

Dr. Yang Lin

Dr. Yang Lin

The examples of verbally aggressive language used by the boss were character attacks (e.g., “You’re a worthless slacker”), competence attacks (e.g., “Your scores are extremely disappointing”), and profanity. Examples of engaging nonverbal behavior used by the boss were direct and sustained eye contact, close proximity, welcoming gestures and smiling.

The research team found that by combining engaging nonverbal behavior with verbally aggressive language, the boss’s verbally aggressive messages were magnified and, as a result, this lowered the boss’s perceived competence by the employee. So, if a boss is going to say something aggressive and still appear credible, it is best that they keep their distance.

Broad applications

The authors suggest that this study is applicable to more than just a boss and an employee. 

“The data collected by this experiment applies to many superior-subordinate relationships, such as coaches talking to their athletes, parents talking to their children, teachers talking with their students, and any other relationship where status differences between the communicators are evident,” Rancer emphasizes.”

The research team’s goal is to try and minimize the use of verbal aggression in the workplace. Rancer, Lin and their colleagues plan to continue this line of research with the goal of creating training programs that teach individuals inside organizations to avoid the use of verbal aggression.

 Story by Hayden Grover

Media contact: Lisa Craig, 330-972-7429 or lmc91@uakron.edu.