The popularity of the TV show, The Office, movies like Office Space, and Dilbert cartoons owes a lot to the depiction of bosses who are jerks. Friends and colleagues often mention that their bosses are jerks, but that they are completely unaware of how awfully they treat others. How can that be?
Problems With The Boss
Self-Protective Biases. People want to believe that they are good, smart, kind, etc., and there are many perceptual biases in place that help protect self-image. One such bias is the Actor-Observer Effect whereby actors (in this case, your Boss) tend to make situational attributions to explain their behavior. So, when your boss acts like a jerk, there is a tendency for him/her to see it caused by the situation ("I'm simply doing my job") or seeing YOU as the problem.
Defense mechanisms, such as rationalization ("there was nothing else I could do;" "my behavior is not so bad") and projection ("You are making me do this to you!") also come into play.
Lack of Professional Orientation. Many managers and supervisors don't work on their leadership/managerial development. Self-awareness is a first step in developing as a leader, and being a jerk means that the manager is obviously not self-aware.
Getting feedback and trying to overcome self-protective biases are also crucial for leader development—but bosses who are jerks obviously don't solicit or pay attention to feedback (or they rationalize it away). One outstanding CEO said, "so many leaders don't realize that there are best practices in leadership, and/or they don't care to learn them."
S/He's Just a Jerk. Of course, there are some people who have character flaws that are very difficult to overcome or change. Some people are just jerks, although we hope that most people could change given the right motivation and leadership development opportunities.
Problems With The Organization. Organizations play a major role in letting jerks into the system, and in keeping them in place once they are there.
Poor Selection System. Good selection procedures can often keep jerks from getting hired, or getting promoted to management. For example, assessment centers that require applicants to engage in role-playing exercises can often detect whether an individual will be a jerk in dealing with supervisees. Unfortunately, too many organizations do not pay enough attention to their hiring practices, and they let the jerks into the company.
Poor Performance Review System. A good performance review system, such as one that gets anonymous appraisals of supervisors from subordinates, can go a long way toward weeding the jerks out of the organization. Unfortunately, all too often performance reviews are pro forma and come from above, so the input of the employees who have to suffer the jerk boss is never solicited or used.
So, what can be done if your boss is a jerk, but doesn't realize it? The safest way to proceed is to try to work within the system as much as possible. Register complaints with Human Resources, but make sure they are specific and detailed, providing evidence of the boss's mistreatment. Encourage others to make legitimate complaints. Encourage decision makers in the organization to focus more on performance evaluation of supervisors, including subordinate input, or to put more effort into the training and development of supervisors.
No one should suffer under a jerk boss, so seeking a transfer or exploring other employment are other possible action plans.