The Reasons Your Boss Sucks

Why do some bosses become bullies?

Posted Jun 28, 2010

The Headcase is currently on his world tour of southern New England to promote the publication of The King's Best Highway. Guest Blogger Cardiff Garcia takes us into the world of authoritarian bosses.

My first job after college was a junior role at a Wall Street firm, and one of my bosses was the kind you'll eventually come across if you work for a big organization long enough. He was mean-spirited, intolerant of opposing views, sensitive about his reputation, and terrified of what people were saying about him behind his back.

He took obvious pleasure in belittling those underlings who weren't stars in their own right, and who lacked enough backbone to withstand his snide comments. Preferring sarcasm and vitriol rather than facts and persuasion, he would tear apart any feedback that contradicted his own ideas.

Creativity was frowned upon, respect for the hierarchy worshipped. He was so clearly uninterested in anybody else's input that nobody really bothered. And in stark contrast to his treatment of subordinates, his ass-kissing up the managerial chain was remarkable for its enthusiasm and consistency.

He was, in other words, an authoritarian boss. Finance journalist Heidi Moore* recently described the characteristics of such bosses at career site FINS. Citing the work of psychologist Roy Lubit, she writes that these bosses are often characterized by extreme narcissism, a fragile ego, a tendency to hog credit, and an inherently bullying nature. And they wreak devastation on the companies that house them:

In highly subjective professions like those dealing with news or markets, authoritarianism is more often than not a management disaster that leads to talent departures, expensive training costs for new people, and pervasive organizational distrust, experts say.

Of course, Wall Street doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of boss. A survey (pdf here) conducted by Zogby in 2007 found that 37% of American workers had been bullied at some point in their careers, including 13% within the previous year. Two out of every five bullied workers eventually quit, representing some 21.6 million workers at the time.

Clearly the problem is widespread, so it seems a good idea to ask: why do bosses become bullies in the first place? Through a series of experiments, psychologists Nathanael Fast and Serena Chen tried to answer that very question, and they released the findings in a research paper for Psychological Science (pdf here) last year.

The authors found that power alone isn't enough to corrupt: it has to be accompanied by self-perceived feelings of incompetence on the part of the powerful. Furthermore, people in positions of power put added pressure on themselves to be competent, making their egos all the more defensive when they lack self-confidence.

In one of the experiments, a group of 59 college students were told they would soon be in a position of power over a fictitious partner, and were then given a leadership test. Unknown to the students, the handwritten test was fake. The students were then told that, based on their test results, they were either excellent leaders or just average. And they were asked to select between easy and difficult versions of tasks that their partners would have to complete to win a cash prize. The students themselves had no financial stake in the outcome.

The results were clear: students who were told they were strong leaders showed less aggression towards their subordinates, choosing the easier tasks for them to complete. The students who were told they were average leaders did the opposite, choosing the tougher tasks for their subordinates despite having no personal stake in the outcome.

In another experiment, Fast and Chen asked 163 volunteers to rate how much power they had at work. When the volunteers in positions of greater power were primed by the researchers to feel incompetent in their jobs, they scored higher in a test of aggression than those in power who felt competent. Intriguingly, this effect was moderated when the researchers gave the "incompetent" volunteers an ego boost that was unrelated to their competence at work. This provided support for the part of the researchers' hypothesis that emphasized the impact of ego defensiveness.

So how can you apply this knowledge if you get stuck working for one of these nuts? Fast and Chen note that flattery is likely to work, especially given their conclusion that "self-worth boosts assuage the aggressive tendencies of such power holders."

Fair enough, though constantly laying it on thick can be a degrading, compromising activity. Other strategies—avoiding the boss, taking a stand when you have to, interacting with more pleasant colleagues, meditating—can also help employees to at least cope with an authoritarian. But if the economy improves and you have the option, you might simply consider doing what I did: quit, and go work for someone nicer.

* Disclosure: Heidi is a friend, and she once demonstrated terrific judgment by hiring me into my first journalism job. Her management style was decidedly non-authoritarian.

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