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Why Are There So Many Horrible Bosses?

From toxic leaders to bully bosses, why does it seem there are so many?

We all likely have a story of that one (or more) terrible boss, who was either a tyrant, a bully, or just totally incompetent. In fact, it may seem that there are more bad bosses than good ones. Why are there so many bad bosses and what can be done about them?

Psychologist Robert Hogan claims that 60-75 percent of managers are incompetent or poor leaders. That ranges from managers who are simply in over their heads to those who are truly awful and destructive. A key reason is that we don’t do a good job of selecting leaders – focusing on how they appear, rather than on their capacity to manage or lead. Hogan and his colleagues also mention that many persons aspiring to leadership positions possess negative personality traits that manifest themselves later in bad ways.

Take narcissism, for example. There is research evidence that a little bit of narcissism may be a good thing when it comes to leadership, but too much narcissism and you end up with a boss who doesn’t care about anyone but him/herself, and takes credit for other people’s work – a potential tyrant [Read more about this here.]

Some leaders may not start out horrible, but they become corrupted and intoxicated by power. Abuse of power occurs in different ways. A bad leader can use punishment, threats, and intimidation in an effort to keep people in line and to try to motivate them. Often, rather than motivating employees, punitive management only causes employees to try to look busy, avoid getting caught and punished, and leads to resentment, job dissatisfaction, and turnover (if the employee has alternative employment options).

Power can also cause leaders to begin to believe that the rules that apply to others don’t apply to them. This is when leaders engage in unethical behavior – breaking rules, taking bribes, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and the like. Power-hungry bosses can be truly horrible and do a great deal of damage. [Read more about the corrupting force of power here.]

Many bullies get into positions of power and authority because they assert themselves, victimize opponents and defeat them, and often go unchallenged by others for fear of being bullied. As a result, the ranks of supervisors and leaders have more than their share of bully bosses who wreak havoc and target innocent employees. [Here are resources to help cope with bully bosses.]

Leadership scholar, Jean Lipman-Blumen, has written about the very worst types of leaders in her book on Toxic Leadership. She asserts, however, that followers allow toxic leaders to be in charge, and that some followers help and support the toxic leader and themselves, in turn, can become horrible bosses and henchmen. The antidote is to be courageous, choose not to follow bad leaders, and to stand up to them before they become toxic.

Horrible bosses are not identified and allowed to do their dirty work in organizations because most organizations do not have mechanisms in place to identify and weed out these bad apples. Good performance appraisal systems, with confidential upward appraisals of leaders by subordinates can help.

Finally, we may get the sense that there are more horrible bosses than there actually are due to information processing biases. We tend to give greater weight to negative than to positive information, so we are more likely to remember our bad bosses, and pay less attention to the good ones. A “vividness bias” also makes truly horrible bosses stand out, and our own experiences with bad bosses, as well as those of friends and relatives, lead us to believe that horrible bosses abound (not to mention the popular movies about bad bosses, from 9-to-5, to Horrible Bosses, and others).

So, what can organizations and individuals do about bad bosses? Clearly, there is no easy solution. Horrible bosses play dirty and are tough to defeat. But the bottom line is for organizations to develop evaluation systems to identify and eliminate bad bosses or keep them from rising in the organization. Anti-bullying policies also can help organizations. At the individual level, it takes courage to stand up to bad bosses – to report them to Human Resources or higher-level leaders, or to call them out. Organizations need to have policies and procedures to protect whistleblowers who identify horrible bosses, and prevent retaliation against employees who raise the alarm. And, as mentioned, organizations need to identify and prevent the wrong types of people from attaining positions of power and leadership.

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