By Willow Lawson, published on November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 26, 2013
Rapport with the boss largely predicts risk for depression and other psychiatric problems in the workplace, says Brad Gilbreath, a researcher at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne. In his study of employees across many work sectors, published in the journal Work and Stress, Gilbreath found that a worker's relationship with his boss is nearly equal in importance to his relationship with his spouse when it comes to overall well-being. Even friendly coworkers or a rewarding occupation cannot compensate for a negative relationship with the boss.
Surveys show that up to half of all workers have a shaky, if not downright miserable, relationship with their supervisors. According to a Gallup poll, a bad relationship with the boss is the number one reason for quitting a job. Supervisor problems outpace all other areas of worker dissatisfaction, including salary, work hours or day-to-day duties. The Gallup report puts it emphatically, "Employees leave supervisors, not companies."
How workers feel about their managers even affects physical health. Nadia Wager, a psychologist at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College in the U.K., documented what many beleaguered wage slaves already know: Hatred for the boss makes the blood boil.
In a study of hospital workers, Wager found that nurses toiling for hospital supervisors with poor management styles—lacking in respect, fairness or sensitivity—had dramatically higher blood pressure throughout the day than nurses working for bosses who were judged as considerate and empathetic. As a result, the nurses with bad bosses had a roughly 20 percent higher risk of heart disease.
Why do bosses hold such sway? It's not simply because they dole out raises, judge performance or otherwise rule over employees, says Annie McKee, a workplace coach and co-chair of the Teleos Leadership Institute in Philadelphia. Humans have evolved to be highly sensitive to each other's emotional cues, even those that are not on the surface. "Emotions are literally contagious," she says. "In the case of an unhappy boss, it's easy to pick up the negativity, the insecurity, the stress that he is spreading around."
Richard Boyatzis, coauthor with McKee of the new book Resonant Leadership and a professor of organizational psychology at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, says two types of close relationships are particularly susceptible to emotional contagion: intimate partnerships and power relationships.
In romantic relationships, emotions are symbiotic. If one partner is feeling bad, the other suffers. One person's good mood can give the other a lift, too. But between boss and employee, emotion tends to flow in one direction—downhill. A supervisor's negativity pools with employees like stagnant water.
Boyatzis, a former psychotherapist who has diagnosed leadership problems in major companies as well as in the federal government, says employees who work for happy and productive managers are likely to be happy and productive themselves, both at work and at home. And not surprisingly, working for a boss who is negative, or who yells or humiliates, drags the employee and the whole organization down.
Being the low man on the totem pole comes with its own set of risks. A worker is dependent upon his boss for access to resources—information about a new account, for example—and rewards. Because of the inherent boss-employee power imbalance, subordinates are set up—required, even—to study their boss's behavior and to dissect its meaning.
Close monitoring of the boss's mood can be counterproductive, but obsessing about the boss's emotional state is a bigger problem for some people than it is for others. A classic study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that some people are especially sensitive to the nonverbal cues others convey in conversation—small changes in body language, tone of voice and facial expression.
These people are able to "eavesdrop" on the hidden thoughts and feelings of others—cues the "sender" didn't intend to transmit. This ability—one facet of the quality that psychologists call emotional intelligence—can be problematic when a person detects another's negative feelings. Someone with heightened emotional perception may not just worry that the boss secretly dislikes him, he may know it as a fact.
Workplace experts suggest that employees try to see what the boss sees to avoid misattributing her motives.
Boyatzis also suggests that employees attempt to establish an emotional connection that doesn't focus on the latest project or deadline. "Find out what your boss really loves about what they are doing," Boyatzis says. "The mere act of talking about a person's dreams, their values, allows you to understand them."
It may help turn a corner in the relationship. But if not, the research speaks for itself: A bad boss isn't worth it.